John F. Kennedy may well be, as syndicated columnist Drew Pearson famously asserted back in 1957, the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize for a ghostwritten book. But the memory of his (or Ted Sorenson’s, assuming you don’t believe that faithful JFK courtier’s steadfast denials of authorship) Profiles in Courage is kept alive every year by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which hands out an award to a politician they deem to be in the tradition of the book’s celebration of U.S. senators that bucked the tide of public opinion to do what they thought was right. Their latest choice—former President George H.W. Bush—is one that ought to appeal to both sides of the political aisle. Bush 41 is probably the closest thing we have these days to a consensus beloved elder statesman. Unlike every other living president, the elder Bush stopped being a lightening rod soon after leaving office. Given the hyper-partisanship of our times and the way that every president that followed him has spawned a derangement syndrome named in their honor, he may well be the last such figure to be viewed this way for the foreseeable future.
But the Foundation’s award has nevertheless spawned a rather spirited argument. The notion that Bush deserves to be honored for violating his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge is one that ought to be fiercely disputed. At stake here is not so much the 41st president’s honor, but the sanctity of political promises as well as the principle of fiscal prudence that was at the heart of his shameless and ultimately self-destructive decision to repudiate that famous promise. To claim, as does the Foundation, that Bush was right to abandon conservative principles isn’t merely a liberal cheer to a GOP leader’s choice to frustrate the voters who put him in office. It is a celebration of a longstanding tradition in which those who hold office are supposed to disregard the views of the mob in favor of the public interest.
That’s the sort of view with which many of our Founders might have sympathized (not to mention British parliamentarian and conservative icon Edmund Burke), but as often as not it is also the refuge of scoundrels. The point about Bush’s “courage” in raising taxes as well as the decisions taken by many, if not most of the examples cited in Profiles, is that they were dead wrong.
The choice of Bush was cheered in particular by New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, whose piece about it not only sought to perpetuate the myth that raising taxes ensured the country’s subsequent prosperity but also engaged in snark at the expense of the younger President Bush and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. But in this case Norquist had the better argument. Having been elected on a pledge to fight back against the tax and spend inertia of the federal leviathan, Bush 41’s spineless surrender to the conventional wisdom imposed on him by the liberal media establishment and a Democratic-controlled Congress dedicated to opposing any reform was more than just your everyday political betrayal. It was an act of contempt for not only his party’s core political constituency but also for the whole point of the Reagan Revolution on which he had hitched a ride in 1980. By raising taxes Bush didn’t ensure the nation’s well being, but he did postpone the day of reckoning for the political establishment that was unable to see that the system had to be changed. The betrayal of the pledge he made when accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency was a low point in his career.
But it bears pointing out that in that sense he is no different from many of the senators lauded by JKF/Sorenson in the book. While a few of their examples are inarguably praiseworthy—Thomas Hart Benton for opposing the extension of slavery, Sam Houston for opposing secession, and Lucius Lamar for promoting post Civil War reconciliation—most of its subjects actually merited the abuse they received for their “courageous” decisions.
In it they laud Daniel Webster for embracing the Compromise of 1850 which sacrificed the right of free states to shelter runaway slaves. In essence Webster traded his honor and his principles for a measure that didn’t so much postpone the Civil War as to ensure it would tear the country apart. They also praise John Quincy Adams for leaving the Federalists in what was an act of intelligent if not particularly principled opportunism; George Norris for undermining U.S. preparedness before World War One and for later supporting a corrupt Democrat for president; and Robert A. Taft for opposing the Nuremberg Trials as ex post facto law rather than an effort to create international standards for human rights.
I might add Kansas Senator Edmund Ross—the Republican who cast the deciding vote not to convict Andrew Johnson after his impeachment—to the list of bad choices. I think Lincoln’s successor richly deserved eviction from office for his obstruction of reconstruction policies that might have granted some justice to freed slaves and avoided much of the harm that restoring the south to white rule did in the century that followed. But I also understand that there was some value to not creating a precedent that would have led to the impeachment of every president who displeased two-thirds of the Senate.
But the point here is that while there is something to be said for a politician that puts his principles above his political future, most of the subjects in Profiles did nothing of the sort. Most, like Webster and Ross, discarded their principles and took what they considered to be the pragmatic move and were rightly reviled for it. That’s what Bush did too, only perhaps in embracing an unnecessary tax increase he demonstrated that he never really had any principles on the issue of the size of government and taxation in the first place. Like the senators in the famous book, Bush paid for it with his political career. But there was nothing particularly courageous about his actions. To the contrary, standing for your principles against the force of conventional wisdom rather than caving in to it is the hardest thing you can do in Washington. Sometimes doing so is right and sometimes it is a mistake (see Cruz, Ted; government shutdown) but betraying your principles is almost always an act of craven cowardice. That the New York Times applauded such behavior should surprise no one.