An addendum to Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage

By and

President John F. Kennedy extolled the virtues of courage. “Only the very courageous will be able to tackle the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for our survival in the struggle with a powerful enemy…And only the very courageous will be able to keep alive the spirit of individualism and dissent which gave birth to this nation, nourished it as an infant and carried it through its severest tests upon the attainment of its maturity.”

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, then-Sen. Kennedy profiled eight historic senators who had shown exceptional courage. These men took stands where no one else was willing to stand, usually contrary to large majorities of public opinion. They clung to their principles no matter the cost, political or otherwise. Though they were sometimes wrong, these men never wavered from what they believed was right.

Though Kennedy profiled only eight men, there have been innumerable displays of courage in the Senate through history. And since its publication in 1954, many senators have deserved a chapter of their own in Kennedy’s timeless work.

Several senators have shown courage on different issues throughout their careers, taking unpopular stands in defense of what they felt was the right thing to do. Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen risked losing re-election, as well as his status as Senate minority leader, because of his support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Idaho Sen. Frank Church did lose re-election in 1980 because of his defense of his own controversial Church Report, which detailed the abuses that the CIA and the intelligence community carried out against Americans at home. And Sens. John McCain and Russell Feingold struggled for several years to get their Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act passed a reluctant congress.

As courageous as these senators were and still are, there is one man who stands above them all. There was one man who devoted his entire life to “tackling the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for our survival,” no matter how unpopular, and “keeping alive the spirit of individualism and dissent which gave birth to this nation.” That man was Paul Wellstone.

Sen. Wellstone passed away one year ago last Saturday, leaving behind a profile in courage like no other senator.

Throughout his life, as a professor of political science at Carleton College and as a U.S. senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone was never afraid to stand up for what he believed in.

During his career, Sen. Wellstone displayed several acts of courage. He led the fight against both of the highly popular wars in Iraq, both of which produced a flurry of opposition to the senator. He stood up against the powerful business and insurance lobbies in his long, yet unsuccessful, fight for universal health insurance. But nothing can compare to the courage that Wellstone showed in his fight against the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.

Faced with a very competitive re-election campaign, Sen. Wellstone found himself in the awkward position of opposing a very popular piece of legislation in an election year. The Welfare Reform Act had the support of the majority of senators, as well as 80 percent of the American public. As an advocate for Minnesota’s poor while teaching at Carleton College, Wellstone could not vote for something that he felt would undo the progress he spent so much of his life working for. So with the probability that he would be defeated for re-election, Wellstone took the lead in fighting the Welfare Reform Act.

The measure eventually passed by a landslide vote of 89-11, but Sen. Wellstone stood his ground. In the face of grave political and public opposition, he had the courage to stick to his convictions, to do what he believed was right.

As President Clinton said upon learning of Sen. Wellstone’s death, “Paul’s public life was a profile in courage. He spoke, stood and voted on his principles, even at the risk of his political career. Ultimately, he gave his life in public service…America was blessed to have a senator like Paul Wellstone.”

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