Bobby Kennedy made essentially the same point, more broadly: "Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital, quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change."
The heroes willing to make sacrifices of this sort come from another era. Daniel Ellsberg risked all to share with us the military's own secret truth about Vietnam. Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus gave up their cabinet positions rather than protect the crimes of Richard Nixon by firing Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Cyrus Vance resigned on principle as Carter's Secretary of State. In the Clinton era, two lower ranking officials quit in protest of his draconian welfare legislation.
Today, a few Bush administration officials have pointed to the crimes of that regime, but always too meekly and always too late to matter much. I admire Richard Clarke and his patriotic candor. He tried to alert the country to the nature of the president in time to prevent a second term, but not in time to avert the illegal and murderous invasion of Iraq, based on lies to which Clarke was privy. And Colin Powell, whose reputation was always wildly inflated, anyhow, allowed his stature and legacy to be reduced dramatically rather than refusing to become a tool of the Bush/Cheney train wreck. He was probably the only American who could have single-handedly stopped the march to war in 2003 if he had but spoken up. Alas, he did not, and perhaps a million people are dead now as a consequence.
Perhaps. It would seem to be the way of our time. But maybe the above caveat explains it all to well. Maybe it's just that far too many of the men and women drawn to "public service' today are in fact deeply sociopathic. I don't think that's such a stretch. We live in an era that prizes celebrity and personal enrichment like never before. Those who embrace the worship of self today are rewarded with the valued goodies of our society, and are, I think, all too often drawn to political office, and all too often for the wrong reasons.
By no means is this limited to its worst practitioners on the right. One thinks of the astonishing narcissism of John Edwards, which worse yet he masked behind a supposed concern for the poor as the rationale for his presidential bid. Or the moral stench of Bill Clinton flying to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign to establish his tough-on-crime bona fides by supervising the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a man so mentally deficient that he asked to save the desert from his last meal to eat at a later date.
Maybe there are other people like that today, but I don't see them. In any case, they don't go by the name of Obama or Biden or Pelosi or Reid, that's for sure. Quite the opposite is the case nowadays. The reckless and destructive rhetoric of the Palins and Becks and Limbaughs of our time has all the political wind of this moment in its sails. Remarkably, this is so even after a solid decade (if not three) in which the corrosive effect of the politics they champion has been on full display for all to see.
But we don't, by and large. See, that is. And that is true, in part, because there are so few John Paul Stevens out there manning the ramparts of such crucial but fragile basic constructs as decency, integrity and honesty. These qualities are entirely requisite to the practices of liberty, democracy and equality, themselves the product of thousands of years of painful development in history.
No, there are sadly so few John Paul Stevens out there.
And now there will be one less.
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