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Aside from allusions to such phrases as Ernest Hemingway’s “grace under pres-sure,” Kennedy never defines courage itself in the book. This omission is deliberate: He prefers that readers define courage for themselves as they encounter the virtue in the specific examples that he has provided. A careful reading of Profiles in Courage makes it clear, however, that Kennedy saw courage as the willingness to stand one’s ground regardless of consequences. While all of Kennedy’s examples have been drawn from politics, this type of personal integrity is applicable to any sphere of endeavor. The ordinary citizen who refuses to be swayed by mob, psychology would, in Kennedy’s view, be no less courageous than the eight senators who are the focus of his study.

In an opening essay entitled “Courage and Politics,” Kennedy indicates that he does not regard courage as mere inflexibility. “All government,” the British orator Edmund Burke once concluded, “is founded on compromise and barter.” This principle was dear to Kennedy’s own heart, and he regarded those who refused to compromise on any issue not as courageous, but merely as obstinate. Kennedy’s own political life was devoted to finding a proper balance between his lofty ideals and the realities of the congressional system.

According to Kennedy, the politician who is unwilling to negotiate will ultimately be ineffective. Senators cannot effectively defend a principle if their devotion to that principle costs them the election. They cannot effectively marshal support for their programs if their inflexibility has alienated them from other politicians. They cannot protect their constituents from extremism if they themselves are viewed as fanatical supporters of a single cause. Courage, in other words, must always be tempered with wisdom, the wisdom to know which principles to defend “to the death” and when it is appropriate for politicians to take a stand.

That type of wisdom is not commonly found in any sphere of human endeavor, least of all in politics where, as Kennedy admits, a guiding principle is that “the way to get along is to go along.” It is also difficult to define precisely where the line may be drawn between courageous advocacy and fanatical partisanship. Nevertheless, the eight senators whose lives are examined in Profiles in Courage were all individuals who knew the difference between determination and zealotry. Although otherwise capable of compromise, they took a stand on one important issue—not out of self-interest, but for the common good. They suffered individually for their decisions, but their courage contributed to the general welfare of society.

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