Scholar in Residence, Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University
In 1955 then-Senator John F. Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography describing controversial political positions of leadership and integrity by eight United States senators throughout the Senate's history. The book profiled senators who crossed party lines and/or defied the public opinion of their constituents to do what they felt was right and suffered severe criticism and losses in popularity because of their actions.
For without belittling the courage with which men have died, we should not forget those acts of courage with which men -- such as the subjects of this book -- have lived. The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy. A man does what he must -- in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures -- and that is the basis of all human mortality. To be courageous, these stories make clear, requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place, and circumstance. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all.
JFK's book was widely celebrated and became a bestseller.
President Barack Obama's leadership or lack thereof has been described in several contrasting ways by his supporters and opponents. During the 2008 Democratic primaries and in the presidential contest with Senator John McCain, he was described as either "cool," "detached," and "professorial" or "inexperienced" and "untested."
After becoming president, Obama was sometime described as "weak," "without political backbone or spine." In earlier blogs, even I described him, in connection with the healthcare debate, or national incidents of racial controversy, as not exercising sufficient leadership by "drawing a line in the sand" with his opponents, thereby defining his "political integrity and values."
I thought his speech "A More Perfect Union," on March 8, 2008, in Philadelphia, on race relations in America, when he was fighting for the survival of his candidacy as president, was one of the most courageous and finest acts of political leadership. "A Profile in Courage."
However, the after-the-fact narrative description and photographs of Obama's leadership at the White House during the 24-36 hours leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden, and taking custody of his body by an elite unite of Navy Seals, may have been, and will be, THE defining moment of Obama's "presidential leadership."
We can only imagine the cascade of criticism that would have been directed at President Obama had the mission to get Osama bin Laden failed and there had been a loss of lives of one or more of the Seals sent in to "get" him.
A more important question, then, than "what if" getting bin Laden had failed, is: Why can't the same thoughtful, determined and courageous presidential leadership we witnessed through the television and print media pictures of President Obama in the White House Situation room, leading up to killing and extracting bin Laden, be exercised in confronting our continued high rate of joblessness, the budget deficit, required reductions in government spending, including reducing the cost of Social Security and defense spending, and the unavoidable fiscal necessity of ending tax cuts for wealthiest Americans?