Into Direful Thickets
February 24, 2017
We’ve heard lots about losers from Donald Trump. There was Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, derided for becoming a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down during combat in Vietnam. Among other belittled targets: former British Prime Minister David Cameron, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, former President Barack Obama, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, conservative columnist George Will, political strategist Karl Rove and a slew of other journalists, politicians, entertainers and actors.
The question of losers came to mind when I read a recent piece called “Why America Should Redefine Political Losers” by Mark Funkhouser. He’s now the publisher of Governing magazine after serving as mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, and became the city’s first mayor in more than a century to lose re-election. Funkhouser described reading John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage a few years ago and discovering, to his surprise, “that it was essentially about political losers, at least as we generally defined them.”
His comments motivated me to dig out a copy of Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, emotionally moving tribute to senators who had risked their political careers by taking unpopular conscience-based stands.
I’d read the book many years ago. The one senator I remembered best from the book was ex-journalist Edmund Ross, a Kansas Republican who cast the deciding vote against conviction at President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial in 1868. During the run-up to the Senate vote and in its aftermath, Ross endured death threats, bribe offers, calumny on the pages of newspapers and abusive letters from outraged constituents. Critics labeled him “traitor” and a “poor, pitiful, shriveled wretch.” Firebrand Radical Republican colleagues in the Senate exerted heavy pressure to persuade him to convict the beleaguered president.
Although Ross intensely disliked the president, he feared an insidious danger to the country if Johnson were convicted by a partisan vote motivated by “that intolerance which so often characterizes the sway of great majorities and makes them dangerous.” Later he wrote, “I almost literally looked down into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, everything that makes life desirable to an ambitious man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever.”
In Profiles in Courage, Kennedy wrote: “Who was Edmund G. Ross? Practically nobody. Not a single public law bears his name, not a single history book includes his picture, not a single list of Senate ‘greats’ mentions his service. His one heroic deed has been all but forgotten.”
Most of us easily remember the names of several other courageous senators profiled in the book — John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston — although their specific acts of courage that Kennedy lauded may escape our memories. The others are less familiar nowadays except to U.S. history geeks and groupies: Thomas Hart Benton, Lucius Q.C. Lamar, George Norris and Robert Taft.
As a college student, I volunteered to help an incumbent member of the New York State Assembly embroiled in a bitter Democratic primary campaign to keep his seat. My service was minor — stuffing envelopes-type work. Assemblyman George Michaels’ problem: While representing “a largely rural, mostly conservative and heavily Roman Catholic constituency,” he had, as the New York Times recounted in his obituary, “cast the deciding vote to liberalize New York’s abortion law in 1970, thereby ending his political career.”
Michaels had previously opposed the measure, but, the newspaper continued, “He realized that the measure was doomed without his support. He rose to take the microphone, his hands trembling. ‘I realize, Mr. Speaker, that I am terminating my political career, but I cannot in good conscience sit here and allow my vote to be the one that defeats this bill. I ask that my vote be changed from ‘no’ to ‘yes.’ “
A few months later he lost his four-way primary and never sought public office again.
Journalist-poet-novelist Stephen Crane is best known for his novel about the Civil War, the Red Badge of Courage, and his short story, “The Open Boat,” both of them required reading in my high school American literature class.
Crane wasn’t born until three years after Ross earned his own badge of courage. But we can speculate that Crane had reluctant heroes like Ross and McCain in mind when he wrote this poem published in 1899:
There were many who went in huddled procession,
They knew not whither;
But, at any rate, success or calamity
Would attend all in equality.
There was one who sought a new road.
He went into direful thickets,
And ultimately he died thus, alone;
But they said he had courage.
, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.