Sunday, July 20, 2008

Profiles in Courage

This book has been on my list for a long time. It won the Pulitzer, deals with American history, and was written by JFK. Good enough for me.

The chapters of Profiles in Courage are short essays on American Senators. Each in his own way was faced with a challenge and stood firm on his principles. The stories of these men were fascinating. It was fun to get a close look at how decisions were made that affected generations of people. It was also very easy to get a picture of the difficult responsibility that scale of power requires. Is it right to always voice the sentiments of your consituents, validating their right to self-governance? Or is the elected representative better guided by voting his conscience?

There is no black-and-white mandate outlining the best course of leadership. If you ignore public opinion the democratic process is threatened. I could respect a Senator who decided to humble their perspective in honor democracy. However, there are several factors that cloud this decision. We have imperfect knowledge regarding a diverse public's wishes. Any decision based on a perceived majority at home would be a guess. Further, as a Senator you must think about national consequences and the local public is largely thinking locally. Finally, and most important, strictly following the opinions of the majority means that our leaders are not leading. At times it is necessary to move beyond common understanding and step forward. The great leaders of the past did not achieve greatness through echoing platitudes, but by making courageous decisions.

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