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When confronted with difficult choices, some presidents make decisions that lead to personal redemption, says CGS Associate Professor Tom Whalen. “They see the light and act on their conscience.” Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Early in 1951, President Harry Truman faced a hard choice. Douglas MacArthur, general of the army, commander of the United Nations forces fighting in Korea, and national hero, had disobeyed yet another directive from his commander-in-chief, scuttling a Truman peace initiative to the Chinese by violating a presidential gag order. Truman viewed MacArthur’s insubordination as a threat to civilian control of the U.S. military, and beyond that, to constitutional rule. His advisors warned that it would be political suicide to fire MacArthur — the general was simply too popular. But “the time had come to draw the line,” Truman later wrote, and he relieved MacArthur of his command on April 11, 1951.

“It literally cost his presidency,” says Thomas Whalen. Truman’s approval
ratings never again rose above 33 percent. “To his credit, Truman felt that
this was the right thing to do, and it was important to the long-term
interests of the country. It was the quintessential moment of presidential
courage.”

That term might seem an oxymoron today, but Whalen, a College of General Studies associate professor of social science, believes the time is right to remember that winning the next election wasn’t always the only goal for our leaders. In his new book, A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage (Ivan R. Dee), Whalen resurrects Truman and eight other American leaders and the moments that defined their political careers, using John F. Kennedy’s 1955 best seller, Profiles in Courage, as a touchstone.

Presidents kowtow to public opinion, of course; that’s politics. But Whalen thinks we’re forgetting that it doesn’t have to be that way. Some of his examples, like Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland, are seldom remembered as heroes. Other exemplary acts of political courage are more well-known, such as Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation and Kennedy and the integration of the University of Alabama. At least one, Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, is open to debate. But that’s what Whalen wants.

“I’m a Socratic teacher,” he says. “I want a debate to begin. I want people to discuss my choices and the whole notion of political leadership and courage.”

Take Chester Arthur, who became president suddenly in September 1881, when James Garfield was assassinated. Arthur had been a New York politician, whose nickname, Gentleman Boss, reflected his association with the patronage system that ruled the day.

Sure enough, when he was sworn in, “all his friends were expecting a fine old time, pigs to the trough,” says Whalen. “But he did a complete 180 and became a model president.” Arthur is best known for signing the Pendleton Act, which established the bipartisan Civil Service Commission, created to eliminate the patronage system that pervaded the federal government. He knew what the political consequences would be, Whalen says, and sure enough, he didn’t get his party’s nomination for a second term. “That was the price, but he did the right thing.”

When confronted with difficult choices, some presidents, like Arthur, make decisions that lead to personal redemption, Whalen says. “They see the light and act on their conscience.”

That was certainly the case with Kennedy, who until mid-1963 paid scant attention to civil rights. “He had a really abysmal record on this during the first two years of his presidency,” Whalen says. “But he saw the civil rights marchers beaten viciously in places like Birmingham, Ala., and it was a turning point for him.” The catalyst was a developing crisis at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Two black students had been admitted under federal court–ordered desegregation, and Governor George Wallace was threatening to stop them from enrolling. Kennedy called in the National Guard, and the students matriculated. In a nationally televised speech in June 1963, he told Americans that they were “confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.”

Kennedy knew that if he went against the segregationists, he had a good
chance of losing the South and the 1964 election. “But he thought that he
would be condemned in history if he didn’t do something,’” Whalen says.

“He put the full legal and moral authority of the presidency behind the civil rights movement. Not since Lincoln had a president dared to do that. He was very conscious of the fact that it might end his political career. But it was the right thing to do.”

Whalen’s final example — Ford’s pardon of Nixon — happened 33 years ago. Does that mean subsequent presidents have lacked courage? Not necessarily, Whalen says. “I think in many ways I’m too close to it. But,” he adds, “no one does stand out to me.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at tmcneil@bu.edu.