Recently I had the chance to reflect on the meaning of courage on two important occasions: the UMassBoston commencement address of Congressman Seth Moulton, and the passing of Muhammad Ali. Sadly, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell provide clear examples of the opposite: political cowardice.
I’ve sat through a lot of commencement speeches over the years and most aren’t memorable; Congressman Moulton’s was. We could respect the speaker – the congressman had shown his own courage by his service in Iraq. He didn’t speak of his own record, but of three lessons he learned from courageous individuals he had come to know as a soldier and a congressman. The first lesson, from. Cpl. James Hassell, is “Courage is not being fearless—courage is doing the right thing in spite of your fears.” Second, from Ahmad, a ten year old Syrian refugee who has suffered grievously but devotes himself to helping others: “courage is taking a stand for others, not for yourself.” Third, from Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello, who has taken a huge risk in orienting his department away from arrests and toward treatment options for addicts: “courage is the willingness to fail.” Moulton offered us these three insights and then warned:
So when you see a politician who plays into our worst fears, rather than confronts them. Who stands up for himself, rather than for our values. Who thinks it’s being tough to discriminate. Who has never risked his life for anything, and never will. That person is not courageous. He is not “telling it like it is.” That person is a coward.
A short time after commencement, the great Muhammad Ali passed away and the nation was prompted to not only recall his brilliant boxing career, but his faith and his courage. As a devout Muslim, he refused induction into the armed forces as a conscientious objector. He explained:
My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father... Shoot them for what? ...How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.
Ali’s courage cost him – he was stripped of his title of heavyweight champion of the world, the jewel of his life’s work. He was banned from boxing during his prime years, denied the opportunity to make a living. He never wavered.
Now we come to Ryan and McConnell, ducking and hiding behind timid statements differing with their “party’s nominee.” In the wake of Donald Trump’s sickening attack against Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of fallen hero Capt. Humayan Khan, Ryan and McConnell “distanced themselves” from Trump, or “defended” the Khans, depending on which headline you want to read.
Ryan and McConnell have failed as leaders. It is way past time for both of them to not only repudiate Trump but to denounce him and retract their endorsements. The Khans have called for this as a matter of morality, and they are right. As Senator Lindsey Graham put it (even before the Khan controversy), at some point love of country has to supersede hatred of Hillary.
Yes, while helping to keep Trump away from the White House may be courageous and the morally right thing to do, it may also cost Ryan and McConnell politically. Perhaps it would help them to read over Congressman Moulton’s remarks, or to reflect upon Ali’s life. And maybe, like Ali, their courage will not end their careers, but burnish them.