One threatening letter to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker promised to attack his wife and "gut her like a deer." Another talked about killing his sons: "I already follow them when they went to school." Then there was the time the governor's car was attacked by protesters who, as Walker recounts in his book, "surrounded the car and began beating on the windows and rocking the vehicle."
The Associated Press reports that another Republican presidential candidate, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, is preparing to release a book modeled on John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. A third Republican presidential candidate, the former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, wrote his own Profiles in Courage-style book called Profiles in Character.
Well, nothing against either Cruz or Bush, but as a profile in either courage or character for our time, Governor Walker himself turns out to be a pretty good example. The Badger State executive withstood an occupation of his state capitol, pickets outside his home, and a recall campaign. All of this was in response to his 2011 budget bill that required public workers to make increased contributions toward their pensions and health insurance. The bill also cut back collective bargaining rights for public employee unions.
Some might object that a governor backed by wealthy donors squeezing government workers isn't courageous, but a bully. But that ignores all those others—Wisconsin taxpayers with children in public schools, private-sector employees with less generous pension and health benefits—who were helped by Walker's actions far more than any out-of-state donors were.
Kennedy used to greet questions about his own World War II heroism, which included swimming for four or five hours towing an injured boatmate for four or five hours, by joking that it was involuntary, because a Japanese destroyer had sunk his PT boat. Some might see an echo of that humility in Walker's Midwestern modesty, which is rare in modern politicians.
The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which keeps a trademark on the Profile in Courage Award, would, alas, be unlikely to give it to Walker, even though his actions in Wisconsin surely fit the award's criteria of standing up for principles even in the face of pressure to bend from powerful interest groups. Last year the award went to President George H.W. Bush, who betrayed Kennedy's tax cutting record, and his own "read-my-lips" campaign promise, by raising taxes.
A JFK Profile in Courage Award for Walker might actually be a good fit. As a senator, after all, John Kennedy championed a law, opposed by the AFL-CIO, requiring stricter financial disclosure from labor unions. In an April 4, 1957, speech to the Lynchburg, Va., Chamber of Commerce, Senator Kennedy warned that "Labor racketeers are using their positions with a union to practice extortion, shakedowns and bribery; threatening strikes, labor trouble, physical violence or property damage to employers who fail to give them under-the-table payments, personal gifts, or other contributions which the union members never see." Robert Kennedy famously took on the Teamsters union as counsel to a Senate committee investigating labor corruption.
Alas, mainstream liberalism of the sort that used to embrace Kennedy's willingness to take on the excesses of organized labor now seems to have lost interest. There's no better example of this decline than the New Yorker magazine. That magazine helped launch Kennedy's political career by publishing John Hersey's account of the PT-109 shipwreck, under the headline "Survival," in its June 17, 1944, issue. The New Yorker recently wrote about Governor Walker in an article that began, "let's stipulate up front that Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, is an odious politician whose ascension to the Presidency would be a disaster."
Let's stipulate up front that if Scott Walker becomes president, it will be without the support of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation or the editors of The New Yorker. And let's stipulate, too, that ugly threats aren't confined to unions or to the left side of the political spectrum; I wouldn't want to be getting Barack Obama's hate mail.
But holding steady for public employee labor reform when the incoming hate mailers are threatening to kill your kids and gut your wife like a deer—well, let's just say that as far as an executive personality and grace under pressure goes, it sure looks like a profile in courage for our times.