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Politicians like to talk (a lot) about their own 'courage'

Politicians often frame what they do in terms of political 'courage.' But critics say it's a term often better left to the battlefield – or its moral equivalent – not everyday politics.

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    Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas speaks at the Georgia Republican Convention on May 15, 2015, in Athens, Ga. Senator Cruz is framing his campaign around the theme of 'courage.'
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Courage. An attribute that politicians of both parties immodestly pin on themselves, either directly or indirectly.

Most people, in other professions, leave it to others to tout their courage. But politicians are happy to do it themselves, using it to try to demonstrate leadership and resoluteness.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas has based his entire campaign around the term. “Imagine millions of courageous conservatives rising up together saying we demand our liberty,” Cruz said in announcing his bid in March. His recent fundraising e-mails also promote courageous conservatives like himself, who aren’t afraid to challenge “B-list Hollywood liberals keen to spread new lies about me” and “the liberal media, fresh off their unending attacks on my announcement and twisting my words.”

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Though it’s not true for Cruz, others using the word are seeking to evoke memories of John F. Kennedy’s classic book, “Profiles in Courage,” which came out three years before Kennedy’s successful presidential bid. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley made a not-so-subtle attempt to tie himself to the tome in accusing Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in April of flip-flopping on same-sex marriage: “History celebrates profiles in courage, not profiles in convenience.”

Meanwhile, new 2016 entrant Bernie Sanders has talked passionately of societal change that can bolster America’s middle class. The ultraliberal Vermont senator told an Iowa audience in February that such change has happened “when people all over this country stood up, occasionally died, often went to jail … It happened because people had the courage to stand up and fight.”

Another potential candidate, Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, published the book “Courage is Contagious” as he was finishing up an 18-year tenure in Congress in 1999. The manifesto profiled “ordinary Americans,” such as firefighters and schoolteachers, doing inspiring deeds. It didn’t help Kasich much, though; he dropped out long before any actual primary voting in the face of the George W. Bush money juggernaut.

More recently, Bush’s brother Jeb, another 2016 aspirant, drew substantial attention for trying to defend the invasion of Iraq. He praised his brother’s 2007 decision to add more troops in Baghdad and Al Ambar Province – at a time when opposition to the war among Americans was growing – as “one of the most heroic acts of courage politically that any president has done.” (Karl Rove, George W.’s chief political adviser, also titled his 2010 memoir “Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight.”) 

The frequency with which “political courage” is bestowed on lawmakers annoys conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin. It “is among the most overused and misused terms in political conversation,” Rubin wrote last year. “The idea that anything involving a well-paying, high visibility job with a good salary, plenty of perks and continual (if unearned) praise could be ‘courageous’ is a bit of a stretch, especially in a time of real and extraordinary courage from people in all walks of life, especially those in our military (every one of whom volunteered).”

Democrats in Congress are more likely to say the word than Republicans, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s invaluable CapitolWords.org. It shows that over the last two decades, Democrats used “courage” and “courageous” on the House and Senate floors 56 percent and 58 percent of the time, respectively.

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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