On May 12, the 2003 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Awards will be presented. The award is described as a way of honoring those “elected officials who, acting in accord with their conscience, risk their careers by pursuing a larger vision of the national, state or local interest in opposition to popular opinion or powerful pressures from their constituents.”
This year, three recipients were selected by the JFK committee, “a distinguished bipartisan committee of national political and community leaders.” But, because we live in a time when so many awards and prizes have been politicized, we should take a closer look at the composition of this hallowed committee. The twelve members that comprise it are:
- Senator Edward Kennedy, D. Massachusetts
- Caroline Kennedy, President, John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
- Elaine Jones, Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund
- Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund
- John Seigenthaler, Founder of the First Amendment Center and a former assistant to Robert Kennedy
- Paul Kirk, Chairman of the board of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
- Patricia Wald, former judge, International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague
- David McCullough, presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author
- Senator Olympia Snowe, R. Maine
- Senator Thad Cochran, R. Mississippi
- Congresswoman Nancy Johnson, R. Connecticut
- Al Hunt, Executive Editor, Wall Street Journal
This year’s award recipients include former South Carolina Governor, Republican David Beasley, who was chosen for his “courageous” attempt to remove the Confederate flag from the capitol dome. During his campaign, Beasley vowed to keep the flag atop the Statehouse. However, after assuming office, Beasley claimed that he had a profound religious experience that led him to conclude that the flag was causing too much strife; in his words: “the plowshare has been turned into a sword.” Governor Beasley stated that the Confederate flag’s problem was one of “Semiotics” (the theory and study of signs and symbols) and he petitioned the legislature to remove it.
Beasley’s campaign against the flag led to a now famous televised speech during which he proclaimed that: “The Confederate flag flying above the Statehouse flies in a vacuum. Its meaning and purpose are not defined by law. Because of this, any group can give the flag any meaning it chooses. The Klan can misuse it as a racist tool, as it has, and others can misuse it solely as a symbol for racism, as they have.”
Actually, Governor Beasley was being hounded to remove the flag by several rather vocal pressure groups. Also, Beasley might have been deluded by the plethora of newspaper editorials insinuating that only a meager group of fringe kooks viewed the flag as heritage. This might have led him to believe he could gain the votes of these pressure groups without a significant loss of other state voters. Mr. Beasley failed in his efforts to have the flag removed and he was not re-elected to office.
The Confederate flag apparently influenced the JFK Profile in Courage Committee in its choice of a second recipient — Roy Barnes, former Democratic Governor of Georgia. Mr. Barnes succeeded in impressing the Committee by the “courage” he displayed when he muscled a bill through the Democrat-controlled legislature to replace the State flag that had been flying since 1956 — the Confederate flag being part of its design. The refurbished banner that replaced the old flag was so lackluster that the North American Vexillogical Association (the authority on flag-related issues) voted it the worst in the North American Continent.
Barnes’ actions were largely motivated by a threatened boycott of Georgia by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. It is also possible that the Governor might have been trying to ameliorate animosity expressed by some minorities over his education reform proposals that included making it easier to fire inept teachers; ending social promotions and ending teacher tenure. And certainly it appears that big city Chamber of Commerce Babbitts effectively convinced Barnes that the Confederate flag was a thorn in the side of the State’s economy.
But there is no evidence to support this claim. In fact, the exact opposite position might easily be argued. Prior to 1956, when the flag was placed atop the Statehouse in Atlanta, that city and its neighbor to the west, Birmingham, Alabama, were locked in competitive economic rivalry; both being relatively similar in size and attainments. But from 1956 onward, Atlanta’s growth mushroomed as large conglomerates from around the nation as well as Europe and Asia opened corporate branches there. The city’s decades of spectacular growth occurred while the Confederate flag flapped harmlessly above the Statehouse in downtown Atlanta.
Like Governor Beasley, Mr. Barnes also misread his state’s political climate. He was correct in thinking that his removal of the Confederate emblem would attract new blocks of voters to the normal Democratic constituency. But he incorrectly judged the magnitude of statewide support for the flag. Voters disgruntled by the flag’s removal played a significant role in Governor Barnes’ failed re-election bid.
The third award recipient is also from Georgia; former Republican State Representative Dan Ponder. Mr. Ponder’s “courageous” act was an impassioned speech he gave to the State legislature supporting “Hate Crime” legislation. Mr. Ponder began this speech by painting himself as an ultra-conservative, lily-white Southern Baptist from an old-established and well-to-do family.
He then recalled the servant who helped raise him from early childhood; a black woman who not only cooked his meals and ironed his clothes, but also read him stories; played games with him, and traveled with the family during their regular vacations to their Florida home away from home. Ponder went on to painfully describe a well-remembered morning, in his early teens. As he was leaving for school the servant tried to kiss him goodbye. But he pulled away and she rebuked him: “You didn’t kiss because I am black.” At that moment, Ponder said he realized that his actions were indeed racist and he claimed that this powerful realization was an epiphany that changed his life forever.
After relating this intense experience, Mr. Ponder made an emotional plea for the pending Hate Crime bill. “Hate crimes are different. Hate crimes are about sending a message. The cross that was burned in a black person’s yard…the gay person that is bashed walking down the sidewalk…the Jews that have endured thousands of years of persecution…were all being sent messages. I would say to you that now is our turn to send a message.” And, in closing, he made this remarkable admission regarding jurisprudence: “I am not a lawyer, I don’t how difficult it would be to prosecute this or even care.”
Although I don’t want to cynically dismiss the life-changing epiphany in young Ponder’s life, I do believe that unabashed sentimentality hardly justifies something as ambiguous as hate crime legislation. And, to be blunt, his mawkishly trite speech amply illustrates that Mr. Ponder seems to rank feelings above facts. Perhaps someone should have informed him that “a feeling is not an argument.” And certainly a lawmaker doesn’t plead for a law, while confessing that it might not stand up in court.
Recently, quite a number of newspapers have wisely editorialized against proposed hate crime legislation. This ill-conceived law requires juries to subjectively guess what was in the mind of the perpetrator of a crime! If the jury believes the perpetrator was inflamed by racial motives, his punishment is more severe. The law is even more illogical when you consider that, if I, a white male, murdered a Hispanic man, I would be more severely punished than if my chosen victim were a three-year-old white girl.
Finally, we must ask: Would the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Committee have selected Governors Barnes and Beasley if they had prohibited abortions in their states? Would the committee honor their courage if they had banned same-sex marriage? Would the committee have selected Representative Ponder if he had spoken out against fascistic campus speech codes? Or, would Ponder have been esteemed if he had criticized high schools for distributing condoms to students?
I think it is fair to say that these three recipients are not being honored for their courage, but for actions that are in accord with the contemporary liberal agenda. In fact, these award recipients say more about the political views of the JFK Committee than the courage of the men selected. The Committee’s award is a perfect example of a type of covert propaganda that occurs fairly regularly these days. In this case, a coveted prize is gift-wrapped in shiny, sanctimonious semantics in order to disguise the underlying political juggernaut. To eliminate the appearance of hypocrisy, the prize should be renamed the John F. Kennedy Profile in Political Correctness Award.
Gail Jarvis [send him mail], a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, is an advocate of the voluntary union of states established by the founders.