I remember as a kid reading JFK’s Profiles in Courage, a collection of stories about eight United States senators who showed courage in the face of great personal detriment by doing the right thing. Virtually all of them paid the price by losing their seats in Congress but maintained throughout their lives that, in John Quincy Adams’ words, “Private interest must not be put in opposition to the public good.” These men let their consciences rule their conduct and put the national interest over party loyalty. In all but a precious few cases, that has been sorely lacking of late.
It is a wondrous thing when people put the greater good ahead of their own desires or personal safety, and yet our history is full of examples of those willing to risk their lives to preserve our freedoms, fight injustice, advance science or help others. Witness the thousands who enlisted in the military after Pearl Harbor; the busloads of college kids who, during the Freedom Summer, were beaten, hosed and beset by dogs as they tried to register voters and integrate lunch counters in the South; the first astronauts who basically sat atop a bomb to advance science or the first responders who rushed into the twin towers during 9/11. Most recently look at the health care workers who have endangered themselves and their families to care for those with COVID-19.
In matters of social justice and equal rights, it takes a long, long time to move the needle. Black men did not get the vote until 1870, while women had to wait another 50 years beyond that. GI benefits were structured in such a way as to deny Blacks who had fought in WWII the opportunity to obtain low interest mortgages or educational benefits, thereby creating a large economic gap that exists to this day. It wasn’t until 1973 that women could serve on juries in all 50 states and not until 1974 could they get a credit card without their husband’s signature. Racial injustice still pervades our society.
Self-sacrifice is easy to recommend when it is not your ox being gored, but we are at a critical moment in our nation’s democracy and we need senators to step up and do the right thing – not the partisan thing. Sadly, only seven Republicans answered the call of conscience. and this assault on our democracy will go unpunished. It is disheartening that the senatorial lust for power and personal gain will override what is best for the nation. Perhaps it is time for Congressional term limits.