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On John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” After N.J.’s Same-Sex Marriage Vote

Our state Senate could have made political and civil rights history in New Jersey this past Thursday—but it didn’t. It could have brought luster to our reputation as a progressive state that cares for all of its citizens—but it didn’t. It could have shown that a clear demarcation between church and state exists here—but it didn’t. It didn’t do any of these things, because Senate members defeated the same-sex marriage bill.

Instead of guaranteeing all its citizens the right to happiness, as stated in Article 1 of the State Constitution (”All persons…have certain natural and unalienable rights, among which [is] … obtaining … happiness”), a majority of senators gave in to the powerful impulse of fear of the unknown, fear of retribution at the polls by constituents, and acceptance of religious dogma to defeat the same-sex marriage bill.

For reasons beyond my understanding, 20 senators voted against the bill based on the general argument that “gay marriage would weaken the social fabric.” Only 14 voted for the bill, following Senate President Richard Codey’s prophetic words: “One day people will look back and say, ‘What were they thinking?’ and ‘What were they so afraid of?’ “

The day before the vote occurred-and with the rights and lives of so many New Jersey citizens hanging in the balance—I thought of the Democrat from Bergen County Senator Loretta Weinberg’s words: “[Senators] can’t be hesitant anymore … they have to come to the realization that we were elected to take sometimes difficult stands, but we were not elected to only worry about the next election.”

Weinberg’s words immediately reminded me of John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage, which I hadn’t reread in years. I picked up a copy and leafed through it.

Kennedy presents his theme in the first chapter’s opening sentence: “This is a book about that most admirable of human virtues-courage.” Our late president is not speaking of physical courage. Rather, he speaks of “acts by men of integrity, who find it necessary, from time to time, to act contrary to public opinion” and “on national issues, on matters of conscience defying the angry power of the very constituents that control [their] future.” Kennedy applies this test to eight U.S. senators from different periods of American history and concludes that each passed it.

This book is not a polemic; it is nuanced, thoughtful, and balanced. Kennedy understands the tug of war that most politicians engage in to balance the views of opposing constituents. He mentions the specific pressures that most politicians face: the desire to be liked, the desire to be re-elected, the conflicting demands of constituents, the requirements of party obligations, and the inherent tensions between serving both state and national interests.

Kennedy writes eloquently about the need for politicians to compromise on issues, but not on principles, and to put national interests ahead of state ones at critical moments. He admits that beyond those he writes about “only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for survival in the struggle.” He suggests that politicians are reluctant to show political courage, because they have too little faith in the people and need to have greater faith in them-because trust in their power is the essence of democracy.

Kennedy knew that political courage comes with a price. Most of the eight courageous U.S. senators he profiled endured “risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles.”

Certainly the political courage it takes to vote in favor of same-sex marriage never entered Kennedy’s mind as he wrote his classic work. Yet I believe that had he been alive today, Kennedy would have sent this message to the state senators as they prepared to vote: “The nation is watching what you do. Act in behalf of its highest ideals and values and not necessarily in behalf of the citizens in your own legislative district, or even the entire state of New Jersey.”

He might also have used these words from the Declaration of Independence to reinforce his point: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

When talking to senators about why they planned to support or opposes same-sex marriage, I heard only the most parochial and personal reasons. I never heard any reference to the Constitution of New Jersey or the Declaration of Independence. No one mentioned “the right to happiness” of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation.

Happiness for many gay and lesbian couples means the ability to marry. If most citizens believe in the concept of marital happiness, then how can those who can marry deprive others of the same right to seek happiness through this institution?

I wish more of our senators had reread (or at least skimmed) Profiles in Courage before they voted last Thursday. Perhaps it would have helped them understand the meaning of political courage in our society and how their vote affected not only people in their own district, but in the nation and even across the world. Perhaps it would have inspired them to seek a larger vision for our society-one based on the right of all people to find happiness.

If they had had the time to reread Profiles in Courage, perhaps last Thursday’s outcome might have been different.

In the final passages of the book, Kennedy includes a message that applies not only to politicians, but to all of us:

“To be courageous … requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place, and circumstances. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all.”

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  • Birthday wishes to Susie Wilson, an inspirational leader and dear friend..have a wonderful day! Amy Regan

  • Dear Susie,
    I feel privileged to have known you over the years and have thoroughly every conversation we ever had. You are an inspiration for independent women in every way–including the fact that you are still so very vibrant at 80!!
    Have a wonderful birthday,

  • This is to send warm greetings to a wonderful woman on her birthday. May you be as feisty and impactful in the coming decade as you have in those past! Jean Levitan

  • What a lovely tribute to you, dear sister Susie. We are so proud of all your accomplishments, as would our parents, who taught us to learn, work hard and give back to this wonderful country.You have certainly fulfilled these goals in so many ways. Happy Birthday and continue to be a wonderful citizen and sister.

  • Dear Susie, Sending warm and happy wishes your way on this landmark birthday. I only hope you realize how important you were and are to all of us who value honest sexuality education. You represented inspiration and strength when we most needed it, and you still are there for us. With much love and appreciation. Carole Adamsbaum

  • Dearest Susie:
    How vividly I remember your encouraging words during that early a.m. walk in the snow at the retreat–you, Leslie, and I shared such a special moment in time. You always made time for everyone even as you moved from pioneer to champion of sexuality education. I am so honored to know you. Happy Birthday, dear Susie–with much love, Brenda Friedler

  • Dearest Susie,

    Happy, Happy Birthday! Special thanks to your parents, Harry and KK Neuberger, for bringing Susie Neuberger - someday to be Susie Wilson - into the world! You are an inspiration, and much loved. My Dad adored you. Mom, of course, always has. I always will.

    Love, Molly Sword McDonough

  • Hello hello from holiday in England,

    Thrilled to get this message of Susie’s birthday while checking in at a cafe WIFI hotspot. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO SUSIE with so much love and respect and wishes for a healthy & happy year. You are a great inspiration to our family! Thank you for all that you do and have done.

    Hoping to see you soon,
    Shelley & Eric (& Max) Mintz

  • Dear Susie,
    A belated birthday wish (sent from Tuscaloosa). And again, many many thanks for all you have done.

    Hope to see you after we get back from Tuscaloosa in March.

    Much love,
    Bobby Westergaard

  • Kennedy writes eloquently about the need for politicians to compromise on issues, but not on principles, and to put national interests ahead of state ones at critical moments. He admits that beyond those he writes about “only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for survival in the struggle.”
    That is a lot of good summarised in a few lines.

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