Issue Date: June 9, 2002
The courage within
America's most famous daughter and sister evokes her family's legacy of civic service in reinterpreting the heroic qualities profiled by her father half a century ago. In this exclusive essay, she celebrates brave citizen patriots who embody our nation's spirit of altruism.
By Caroline Kennedy
People often ask me about my father's legacy. To me, one of his greatest achievements was inspiring a generation of Americans to want to serve their country, their community and their fellow citizens. Growing up, not a day went by when someone didn't come up to me or my brother and say, "Your father changed my life. I got involved because he asked me to." He believed that politics and public service are truly a rewarding way to live.
Our family and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation established the Profile in Courage Award to celebrate that spirit. It is named after my father's 1956 book "Profiles in Courage", which won the Pulitzer Prize. When we began the award in 1989, many people thought we wouldn't be able to find enough courageous politicians to give it to, but they were wrong.
Caroline Kennedy's new book was inspired by her father's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Profiles in Courage". She recruited writers like Bob Woodward and Steve Roberts to pay tribute to the bravery of elected officials, from a school superintendent in Georgia to former president Gerald Ford.
Years later, the most difficult challenge we face is deciding among so many courageous officials. The award celebrates those people serving at all levels of government -- local, state, and national, Republican and Democrat -- who have the courage to stand up for what is right for our country even if it means risking their careers.
My new book, "Profiles in Courage for Our Time", tells the stories of these kinds of men and women. It proves that you don't have to be a senator or be in Washington to make our country a better place to live. I believe that the capacity for courage is within us all, and there are no greater heroes than those who serve others. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said: "You don't have to have a college degree to serve. ... You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. ... You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love."
Many of the winners found themselves caught up in a local controversy, like Calhoun County, Ga., school superintendent Corkin Cherubini, who became superintendent after teaching English for 20 years. He thought it was more than suspicious that in a predominantly black school district, the advanced classes were filled with mostly white students. And that had always been the case. He didn't accept the status quo but rather began asking questions and more questions until he discovered an entrenched system of racial tracking that began in the earliest grades. He withstood a firestorm of protest but stood fast on behalf of the children who were being denied the educational opportunity they deserved.
Men like Cherubini never dreamed they would be the ones to make a difference in our society, but as my uncle Bobby said: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
At the other end of the spectrum, we have honored former president Gerald Ford for his decision to pardon Richard Nixon. At the time, it was very unpopular. Time has taught us that Ford really did what he thought was best for our country. He realized our society needed to heal from the divisions caused by the Watergate scandal, and he sacrificed his presidency so America could begin that process.
"Profiles in Courage for Our Time" was in the works for a few years. My brother, John, and I started working on it together. We wanted it to share the inspirational qualities of my father's book but reflect the diversity of the award winners and their experiences. Because the award recognizes men and women from all parts of the country and at all levels of government, we thought it would be interesting to have a number of authors contribute -- people who could really bring each story to life.
One of the best parts of working on this book for me was that so many of our greatest writers were eager to participate. Some, like USA WEEKEND Contributing Editor Steve Roberts, truly knew the person they were writing about and were able to tell their story in a unique way. Roberts wrote his chapter on the late Oklahoma congressman Michael Synar, who battled just about every special interest group there was, including powerful ranching and mining interests in his own state. We matched up others like Bob Woodward and Gerald Ford. Over the past couple of years, Woodward had interviewed Ford extensively, so it was wonderful to have his perspective included in the book.
Speaking of the pardon in the course of those interviews, Ford said: "The truth is, this was a decision 99% on my own, which is typical of my way that I make decisions. But I make my own decisions. And sometimes I make wrong ones. And when I do I'm kind of stubborn about still believing I was right. But in this case, I have never equivocated in my own mind that I did the right thing. ... I had to get the big problem away. Gone." Now, years after his exhaustive, investigative efforts helped bring to light Nixon's abuse of power, Woodward himself has reversed his initial sentiments regarding Ford's decision. He has concluded that pardoning Nixon was truly an example of courageous political leadership.
In the months since Sept. 11, people have changed the way they think of public service. I don't think it is possible to look at our police and firefighters in the same way we did before. Those who sacrificed their lives in order to save others in New York, at the Pentagon and in the sky, and those who put themselves on the line every day to keep us safe, made real the face of courage and inspired a new generation to believe in public service.
I was lucky to grow up in a family where the adults taught by example. They were concerned about others and believed that each person can make a difference. My grandmother passed those values on to her children, and they passed them on to my generation. Now my own children are growing up, and I hope they will be inspired by these same values.
When I think about how I can be more courageous, I often think of the words that my father chose to end his book: "In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience -- the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men -- each man must decide for himself the course he will follow.
"The stories of past courage can define that ingredient -- they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this, each man must look into his own soul."
Caroline Kennedy edited "Profiles in Courage for Our Time" (Hyperion, $23.95) and serves as president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation (www.jfklibrary.org), which oversees the Profile in Courage Award.
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Is the Courage Within You?
Caroline Kennedy writes about civic-oriented courage. For most of us these days, however, courage evokes a more visceral, "in the moment" bravery that we heard about in countless accounts of Sept. 11. Inevitably, we ask ourselves: Do I have what it takes to answer the call in that kind of situation? It's not just about confronting a terrorist-ignited crisis. After an earthquake, would you rush inside a damaged building to save someone trapped inside?
Carin Gorrell, a senior editor at Psychology Today, has asked many experts in the field about the makeup of individuals for whom bravery is a matter of instinct.
Are you the type to face danger and take action? Ask yourself these questions to find out:
Have you had any practice? Russell T. Jones, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech, says acts of bravery can be learned experiences. If you've dealt with danger in the past, it prepares you for a similar -- or even braver -- act in the future. It doesn't have to be all by chance, either. Those who have gotten CPR training, for example, are conditioning themselves for such a moment.
Are you good at "active coping"? Jones says many people can turn a bad situation into a neutral or favorable one. When you're on the highway and see that a large piece of metal has hazardously fallen on the road, do you shrug your shoulders and say, "Well, there's nothing I can do about it"? Or do you take the initiative to deal with the problem? On Sept. 11, the brave souls on Flight 93 opted for the latter, once the terrorists' intentions seemed clear.
Are you anxiety-free? Worrywarts don't fare well in these situations, says Mark Zelig, a psychologist and former Salt Lake City police commander. They contemplate too many negative consequences that might come from taking action. Those with a "seize the day" mentality act first and contemplate second.
Have you mentally rehearsed for a crisis? Think of the baseball pitcher who sits in a locker room and visualizes victory in his head before the game is played. That applies to human courage, too, Zelig says. Have you plotted strategy for escape and rescue in case of a house fire or a flood evacuation? Intellectual preparation brings a game-plan mind-set to such a situation.