Courage and the Absence of Courage

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by Jeff Jacoby

Arlen Specter would never have made it into Profiles in Courage. Unlike the senators described in John F. Kennedy’s book — men who remained true to their principles, even when it meant paying a steep political price — Specter has never been celebrated for his backbone.

Forty-odd years ago, Specter abandoned the Democratic Party in order to win election to Congress as a Republican; five days ago, he abandoned the Republican Party in order to win re-election as a Democrat. As he announced his defection, Specter all but admitted that he was acting out of naked political expediency. “I have . . . surveyed the sentiments of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and public opinion polls,” he told reporters, “and have found that the prospects for winning a Republican primary are bleak.” According to a poll that had been released a few days earlier, only 30 percent of Pennsylvania Republicans were supporting Specter’s re-nomination, while 51 percent favored his conservative rival.

When Vermont Senator James Jeffords defected from the GOP in 2001, Specter blasted his perfidy, and wanted senators to be barred from changing parties in midsession. As recently as two weeks ago, he assured Pennsylvania voters that he wouldn’t do such a thing. Asked in an interview whether he might consider running as an independent or Democrat, Specter staunchly replied: “I am a Republican and I am going to run on the Republican ticket in the Republican primary.”

But if Specter is no profile in courage, there are others in the public eye who are, as two admirable American women have recently reminded us.

At first glance, Carrie Prejean and Mary Ann Glendon could hardly seem more dissimilar. Prejean is a 21-year-old California beauty queen and model; Glendon is a Harvard law professor and a former US ambassador to the Vatican. What they have in common is a greater respect for honesty than for political correctness, and for the obligations of moral witness than for their own personal prestige.

Glendon made news last week when she refused to accept the University of Notre Dame’s illustrious Laetare Medal, the oldest and most distinguished honor in American Catholic life. The medal was to have been presented on May 17, when President Barack Obama will receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement address. Notre Dame is the nation’s foremost Catholic university, and its decision to honor Obama — an ardent supporter of unrestricted abortion rights — has been sharply criticized, especially by Catholics who share their church’s deep opposition to abortion.

In a letter to Notre Dame’s president, Glendon expressed dismay that the university would bestow a high honor on someone so hostile to such a fundamental Catholic principle, in flat disregard of church guidelines. Worse, it was using her expected appearance to deflect criticism, suggesting in its “talking points” that Obama’s address to the graduates would be balanced by Glendon’s brief acceptance remarks. Unwilling to let her presence be exploited in this way, she chose to renounce the medal.

Unlike Glendon, who had weeks to reflect before making her decision, Prejean had only seconds. In the final round of the recent Miss USA Pageant, Prejean was asked by one of the judges — a homosexual gossip blogger who calls himself Perez Hilton — whether she thought every state should legalize same-sex marriage. It was, she later said, the question she dreaded most — “I prayed I would not be asked about gay marriage” — knowing that an honest answer would hurt her chances of winning.

Nevertheless, she gave the honest answer. “I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other,” Miss California replied, but “I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anyone out there, but that’s how I was raised and that’s how I think it should be — between a man and a woman.”

As she foresaw, the crown went to another contestant. What she may not have foreseen was the wave of hostility and condemnation that followed. Immediately after the pageant, the judge who had asked the question publicly berated her, snarling in an online video: “Miss California lost because she’s a dumb b***.” (In an even uglier postscript, he later said that he had actually wanted to call Prejean “the C-word.”) California pageant officials slammed her, too; “religious beliefs,” one wrote, “have no place in politics in the Miss CA family.” The Miss California USA organization even issued a statement denouncing Prejean for “her opportunistic agenda.” Village Voice columnist Michael Musto went on Keith Olbermann’s TV show to slander Prejean as “dumb and twisted . . . a human Klaus Barbie doll.”

Throughout the uproar, Prejean has remained gracious and calm, steadfastly refusing to demonize those who have been demonizing her.

It is not always easy to have the courage of one’s convictions, to turn down honor for the sake of truth, or to resist the pressure to be politically correct. A law professor and a beauty queen have just shown us how it is done.

This article first appeared in the Boston Globe.

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58 Responses

  1. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Raymond:

    How could FDR have prolonged the great depression by 20 years when WWII brought us completely out of it by 1941? And could you please tell me which reputable economists believe that the new deal in fact prolonged the depression?

    With regard to the inflation in the Carter years, what you had was the result of inflationary pressures on the economy on one hand and legal limits on interest rates pressing in the other. Inflation ended because fed chairman Paul Volker opened the pressure valve, letting interest rates rise to stratospheric levels before the pressure leveled off. It was Volker’s actions that stopped the inflation far more than anything that Reagan did while in office.

    And before you give credit to Reagan for lowering our taxes, keep in mind that every major Reagan tax cut was followed by one or more major tax increases that to a great extent vitiated the effect of the cuts for most taxpayers. Thus, the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 was followed by TEFRA in 1982, the social security amendments of 1983 which subjected social security payments to income tax for the first time, and the 1984 deficit reduction act. The tax reform act of 1986 was followed by two ommibus budget acts (COBRA and OBRA) that increased taxes in little gimmicky ways. In fact, one could argue that Reagan signed more tax increases into law than any president in recent history.

  2. Raymond says:

    I am not sure that labeling anything one disagrees with as coming from a Right Wing Think Tank is a valid way of refuting the truth of my statements. FDR did prolong the Depression by twenty years, and inflation and unemployment were sky high during the disastrous Carter administration, alleviated only when President Reagen took office and significantly lowered our taxes even when busy almost single-handedly bringing down the Soviet Union.

  3. Alvin Temperland says:

    Dovid: The flawed and misleading ratings issued by the Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P were due to a flawed system that rewarded dishonesty and greed. This system is still in place.

    I think you raise an important point here. I’m all for stamping out dishonesty (when the government controls everything, that makes it even more difficult, because there’s no-one to watch the watchers), but any political system that doesn’t reward honest greed will fail, because humans are greedy.

    On an individual personal level, one hopes to improve beyond greed, of course, but when economic or regulatory policies that do not acknowledge that fundamental greed are set in place, the results are terrible.

  4. Alvin Temperland says:

    dovid –

    The intrusion I mentioned was in the housing markets themselves. I never said that the government interfered with the rating agencies, so I’m a bit confused by your argument.

  5. dovid says:

    “The rating agencies also did a horrible job, to be sure. But this is just one of an extensive list of unanticipated destructive consequences of governmental intrusion in the financial markets.”

    This statement is not based on facts but ideology. There has been absolutely no gov’t intrusion in the rating agencies’ activities. The flawed and misleading ratings issued by the Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P were due to a flawed system that rewarded dishonesty and greed. This system is still in place.

  6. Alvin Temperland says:

    Lawrence – thanks for asking. I am intimately familiar with how Fannie and Freddie worked. I suspect from your comments that you are not, so I will again explain. When the government prodded Fannie and Freddie to relax their lending standards, there was a significant disruption to the information normally conveyed by housing prices. That distortion caused the analyses done by most investment firms to be overly optimistic in the valuation of mortgages in various pools. That led to excessive demand for securities backed by optimistic mortgages, which led to the housing bubble and bust.

  7. Reb Yid says:

    On the theme of courage:

    The Chicago Tribune recently ran a story about what may become a landmark ruling about mezuzos

    Why has there been no outcry on this blog, as there often is when matters of religious principle are at stake?

    Is it because it’s the liberal judge Wood (possible Supreme Court selection) who is siding with the observant plaintiffs, while the more conservative judges (Easterbrook, Posner) are not?

    I’ve seen too many postings on this blog that utilize threats against an Orthodox lifestyle as a jumping off point to attack liberalism, liberal justices, etc.

    In this case, those on this blog and others in the Orthodox community should show the courage to stand with Justice Wood and her liberal views.

  8. Alvin Temperland says:

    Lawrence: You won’t hear any Democrat with the stature of Dick Cheney saying of him as Cheney said of Powell “I think on my take on it was Colin had already left the party. I didn’t know he was still a Republican.” You won’t hear anyone in the Democratic media saying anything like what Rush Limbaugh said of Powell, “What Colin Powell needs to do is close the loop and become a Democrat, instead of claiming to be a Republican interested in reforming the Republican party.”

    That’s absolutely true. Politicians are, on the whole, a sordid lot. But to claim, as did Reb Yid, that Joe Liebermann “wronged” Obama is incorrect, and that was the only point I was making.

    And to get back to your other point in more detail – the Democrats time and again wanted to increase, not rein in, subprime lending, which is a) why Fannie and Freddie went bust; b) why the $400 billion in Fannie and Freddie preferred stock went to zero, enormously exacerbating the banks’ balance sheets and c) the primary reason for the convolution in the housing markets that is the reason we had a housing bubble and bust in the first place.

    The rating agencies also did a horrible job, to be sure. But this is just one of an extensive list of unanticipated destructive consequences of governmental intrusion in the financial markets. We’re going to see many more as Obama’s hurried policies unfold.