I served as mayor of Kansas City from 2007 to 2011, and was its first mayor in more than a hundred years to not win re-election. I left office with my reputation more or less in tatters, and the pundits and political players in Kansas City politics regard me as a failure.
I think of this discouraging and disappointing experience whenever I hear someone -- invariably a person who has never held elective office -- declare that what is needed to solve this or that problem is “political will.” What those people are really saying is that all that is required to solve a knotty, complex public policy issue is for a politician to be willing to lose the next election.
That seems to me to be asking too much of people who, after all, ran for office in the first place to be able to make a positive difference. But for some, that’s what it ultimately has come down to. A couple of years ago, I finally read Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1957 book, and was surprised to find that it was essentially about political losers, at least as we generally define them. The book chronicles pivotal moments in the lives of eight U.S. senators whose courageous acts ended with positive policy outcomes achieved at the cost of their political reputations and in some cases the offices they held.
In 1989, the Kennedy family created the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to honor public officials who “risked their careers by embracing unpopular positions for the greater good.” A look at some of those who’ve received the award in recent years shows the pattern. The 2012 awardees, for example, were David Baker, Michael Streit and Marsha Ternus, justices of the Iowa Supreme Court who were part of its unanimous decision striking down a statute barring same-sex marriage. The three subsequently faced a retention election and were all defeated.
In 2014, former President George H.W. Bush received the award for his role in the historic budget compromise of 1990, which is widely credited with helping to lay the foundation for the economic growth of the 1990s -- and with contributing to Bush’s defeat for re-election. The 2015 awardee was Bob Inglis, a congressman from South Carolina who after opposing efforts to combat climate change changed his mind and advocated for a carbon tax. You’ve probably already guessed what happened to Inglis: In June 2010, he was defeated in the Republican primary.
For every public official receiving this award, there are hundreds whose acts of political courage go unrecognized. This year marks the centennial of John F. Kennedy’s birth. I’d suggest celebrating it by going to the JFK Library website and nominating a courageous public official. Recognizing more of them could go a long way toward redefining the meaning of success in public life.