Clark, McCain and the forms of courage

As the McCain-Clark dustup continues into its fourth day (mostly courtesy of McCain), it seems to me that there is one interesting way in which it reveals assumptions about Presidential qualifications.

One could make a fairly plausible point about how being a POW would prepare someone for the Presidency: in a word, courage. It was courageous for McCain to fly the missions he did, and courageous for him to refuse to confess, reveal information, become a tool of North Vietnamese propaganda, etc.

So one could quite easily reason: wouldn’t courage be an excellent trait in a President? He or she wouldn’t flinch from making tough or unpopular decisions. If you resist the temptation to avoid torture or even death, certainly you could handle some criticism in the press.

Except that it doesn’t seem to work that way. There is a profound difference between personal and political courage.

Exhibit Number One: John Fitzgerald Kennedy. No one can deny the vast personal courage that it took for him to become a war hero on PT-109. Yes, yes: he wanted to show he was a tough as his older brother, yadda yadda yadda. But volunteering for PT boat duty was an enormously courageous act.

Flash forward to his political career and the hero becomes the wimp. As a Senator and President, he was hardly a profile in courage. He managed to be out of Washington when the Senate censured Joe McCarthy, for example. He was AWOL on civil rights. He spent 14 years in Congress with virtually nothing to show for it. He regularly deferred to southern segregationists.

We could name lots of other examples of personal courage not translating into the political: George H.W. Bush comes to mind as well. Somehow the brain seems to compartmentalize facets of our life, so people can risk death but not Rush Limbaugh. I can’t explain it, but it does seem to be the case.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.