In the epilogue to his book, Presidential Courage, Michael Beschloss recalls that five years before being elected President, John Kennedy lamented that US politics had become "so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men...[And further, because of] the tremendous power of mass communications, any unpopular or unorthodox course [aroused] a storm of protest." These conditions, Kennedy suggested, put a higher price on political courage than at any time in our country's history, with the prospects of political annihilation for those who showed a willingness to stake out different points of view becoming almost prohibitively high.
Some would argue that Kennedy may have believed more in political courage than he practiced it, especially when it came to civil rights, a cause about which he was either indifferent or tepid through most of his political career. But the forces Kennedy saw diminishing a political actor's willingness to chart a course irrespective of what opinion polls, focus groups, radio call-in audiences, special interests, or political operatives may tell them have not diminished in power or influence in the past fifty-four years. (The Internet and cable news, among other things were not part of the stew identified by Kennedy. But they have made his insight even more acute.)
Truth be told, the US electorate has a schizophrenic attitude about political courage. We want, so we say, for our political leaders to have backbone and to not make decisions based on the latest public opinion surveys, but on what's "right." These are the kinds of things ordinary voters say all the time.
Yet we also seem to want our leaders to be milquetoasts or automatons who mechanistically reflect our opinions, well-informed and otherwise.
This leads to 1984-style characterizations of popular pols as courageous, although their actions rarely buck popular opinion, and of politicians who dare to do what they think right as being weak, vacillating, or indecisive. You can supply your own examples for each category and if you're fair, I think you'll concede that examples of both inaccurate assessments run the political gamut. Our schizophrenia is reliably non-partisan.
No wonder political courage is so rare. And its rarity is part of what makes President Barack Obama's speech on Afghanistan tonight so important.
Whatever one's take on the strategy he will unveil this evening--I offer no opinion on that, he is displaying remarkable political courage.
That may not ring true to some at first. After all, the strategy the President will unveil tonight is consistent with what he said he would do during last year's presidential campaign, a campaign he won resoundingly. Obama said he would wind things down in Iraq. The real fight against al-Qaeda, he also said, was on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the fight would need to be ramped up. With those pledges as part of his platform, Obama was given the presidency.
But in the intervening time, a core constituency of the President's own party, liberal Democrats, have become disenchanted with any US presence in Afghanistan. And the American people have grown more restless to leave the Afghans (and the Pakistanis) to fend for themselves.
Some Republicans have claimed that Obama has been "dithering" on Afghan policy and some in the opposition party have said that Obama should not cut down on General Stanley McCrystal's troop level request.
Tonight, Barack Obama is going to tell a nation weary of war that we must undertake an increased burden in a nation where US personnel have been fighting and dying for eight years.
Give the President his due. This isn't just a hard speech to make; it was preceded by a tough decision made in spite of a clear understanding that, because nothing is a given in this life, the war could turn out badly. And, less significantly, it could make Obama a one-term president. The policy Obama announces tonight could scuttle all his lofty aims.
Yet, in the face of the opposition and the odds, Barack Obama, based on his discussions with military and civilian advisers, is forging ahead with his proposed escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
Whether Obama's decision turns out to be right or wrong, a success or a failure, he is exhibiting political courage.
How history will remember Obama's courage depends on how things turn out. The second line in Beschloss' book hints at that:
...throughout our history, at times of crisis and urgent national need, it has been important for Presidents to summon the courage to dismiss what is merely popular--and the wisdom to do that for causes that later Americans will come to admire.
The only political courage subsequent generations will admire, Beschloss seems to say, is that which results in what is perceived as success. No points are given for being courageously wrong. I want to disagree with that; courage should be counted as courage irrespective of outcomes.
Yet this is the high stakes game which Barack Obama is knowingly playing. The politician submits her or his life not only to the judgment of contemporary electorates, but of history. My personal experience is that most politicians like--sometimes love, sometime crave--being liked, affirmed, appreciated, cheered.
Courage for politicians happens when they risk losing votes and the adulation of history to do what they think is right.*
The President has little to gain and much to lose from the policy he announces tonight. Right or wrong, that takes courage.
*Actually, this is true for any leader. After twenty-five years as a pastor, I can tell you that it takes more courage to take a stand you know some will repudiate than to do anything that gains universal applause. But I also can say that, for all the turmoil taking a stand may cause, there is more inner peace and clarity of action when you go the courageous route. I have to also say that, for me, courage is something I draw from God and not any intestinal fortitude I may (or may not) possess.