A highly readable exercise forthrightly modeled on JFK’s Profiles in Courage, examining nine instances in which American presidents have acted against their own political interest.
Some are well known, others not—or at least not in their full details. Everyone knows, for example, that the Emancipation Proclamation aroused scorn in the rebellious states; few recall how bitterly it divided Lincoln’s nominal supporters in the North. Whalen (Social Science/Boston Univ.) opens each tale of moral courage with a mini-portrait of the president involved. Some episodes feel too large for the book’s slight frame: Andrew Jackson’s war against the aristocratic Bank of the United States, which plunged the nation into financial panic; Teddy Roosevelt’s prosecution of J. Pierpont Morgan’s Northern Securities Company as an illegal railroad combination under the antitrust laws; and FDR’s Lend Lease agreement with Britain, which frightened and angered a large portion of the mostly isolationist public. For the most part, however, the author has chosen bite-sized incidents of presidential courage perfectly suited to his theme: Truman’s firing of insubordinate World War II icon General Douglas MacArthur; Chester Arthur’s unexpected transformation from a machine politician to a civil service reformer; JFK’s 1963 address committing his administration to civil rights; Gerald Ford’s unpopular pardoning of Richard Nixon. Whalen pointedly distinguishes between presidential courage and presidential recklessness, using the example of George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, but at the same time somewhat contradictorily laments recent presidents’ willingness “to sacrifice principle for the sake of political expediency.” He acknowledges this will not be “the final word,” and indeed one might wonder why Jimmy Carter’s relinquishment of the Panama Canal in 1977 was not every bit as morally courageous as Grover Cleveland’s principled refusal to annex Hawaii in 1893.
Uneven but entertaining.