IN 1990, when he ran for governor of Connecticut, liberal maverick Lowell Weicker told voters that raising taxes in the middle of a recession would be tantamount to throwing gasoline on a fire. He won the election, then bullied the Legislature into adopting a hated income tax in the middle of a recession. Weicker's popularity plummeted, along with Connecticut's economy. A year later, he was rewarded by John Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg with $25,000 and a prize named after their father and his 1956 book on political integrity -- the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
Former Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker receives the Profile in Courage award from Sen. Ted Kennedy, John Kennedy Jr., and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg
That year, he received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and a check for $25,000.
Mike Synar, a 16-year Democratic congressman from Oklahoma, took pride in holding liberal positions his constituents didn't. The "Almanac of American Politics" rated him "by far the most liberal of any white member from the South, more liberal than most Democrats from the North." Oklahoma's leading newspaper calls him "abrasive and arrogant . . . quick to label someone who disagrees with him a tool for a special interest." In Congress, Synar fought against cigarettes, gun owners, health care choices, commercial speech, free trade, and term limits. It was he who filed the lawsuit that killed the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law. Last September, the voters finally had enough. Synar lost a primary race to a 71-year-old former school principal whom he'd outspent 24-to-1. "I guess," a Democratic staff member told the newspaper Roll Call, "there is a limit to how many times you can tell your constituents to go screw themselves."
A few days ago, Synar was at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston to collect the JFK Profile in Courage Award and the cash that goes with it.
Profiles in courage? Since when does courage consist in peddling malodorous ideas your constituents find obnoxious? Is it courageous to batter them with higher taxes and higher spending? Michael Dukakis might have thought so -- he smeared critics who opposed his tax hikes as "the gutless wonders of Massachusetts politics" -- but John F. Kennedy would not have.
When John Jr. and Caroline inaugurated the awards, they got off to an admirable start. Their first two honorees were pro-civil rights Southerners -- Carl Elliott of Alabama and Charles Weltner of Georgia -- whose political careers had been crushed by the machines of racist governors (George Wallace and Lester Maddox, respectively).
But now the Kennedy siblings seem determined to reduce the award to nothing more than a consolation prize for conceited, narrow-minded liberals who lose elections.
Courage in office isn't always easy to define. In "Profiles in Courage," which tells the stories of eight courageous US senators, Kennedy acknowledged that the quality he esteemed in them was an elusive one.
"There was in the lives of each of these men," he noted, "something that it is difficult for the printed page to capture." The senators he profiled -- John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Edmund G. Ross, Lucius Q.C. Lamar, George Norris and Robert A. Taft -- were no cookie-cutter clones. Some were liberal, some conservative. "Some demonstrated courage through their unyielding devotion to absolute principle. Others demonstrated courage through their acceptance of compromise." Kennedy's pantheon included Republicans and Democrats, Federalists and Whigs.
Two of his profiles in courage, in fact, came down on opposite sides of the same issue. Webster, although a lifelong abolitionist, was for the Compromise of 1850 (which allowed slavery to be extended further west); Benton, although he represented the slave state of Missouri, was against it.
But this much they all had in common: They put the nation's interest before their party's. They spoke out when self-respect would not let them keep silent, even if it meant breaking with their allies, or with their own history. Their minds were supple enough to encompass more than a few fixed, parochial ideas. Their courage, as Kennedy saw it, lay in being true to their ideals even when others thought they were wrong -- not in demanding to have their way or ramming sour solutions down the public's throat.
Does that sound like Jim Florio? Mike Synar? Lowell Weicker? All they have in common is a sneering attitude, rigid left-wing opinions, and the knack of making people loathe them. Whatever they may be, profiles in courage they aren't. Somewhere, in a better place than Boston, JFK must be dismayed to see his name used so cheaply.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.)