The key to getting ourselves out of today's Washington debt ceiling quicksand is to understand how we marched ourselves into it. And the key to understanding that recently leaped out at me -- as if written in neon Day-Glo -- from the now yellowed and dog-eared pages of a book that won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography.
The book, "Profiles in Courage," written by then-U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy, is an account of patriotic and principled actions in times of crisis by eight senators who dared to stand forthrightly for what they believed to be in the national interest, resisting temptations to demagogically seek political gain or yielding to pressures of political expedience.
"Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before," Kennedy wrote in his first chapter. "For our everyday life is becoming so saturated with the tremendous power of mass communications that any unpopular or unorthodox course arouses a storm of protests such as John Quincy Adams ... could never have envisioned."
Surely JFK, eternally young in our memory's eye, could never have envisioned the way political storms of protest could be whipped up at warp speed thanks to the 21st Century's gifts to politics -- the non-stop cable TV news, the Internet and Twitter.
And on Monday night, JFK seemed quaintly as remote from us as JQA, as our African-American Democratic president, Barack Obama, appeared live on screens of all sizes, including those on mobile telephones we wear on our hips, to address the nation about a crisis all America's dead presidents would have thought unthinkable: That the United States could be forced, for the first time in our nation's history, to default on our massive national debt. That would send global economies into disarray and increase interest rates. Thus forcing all Americans to pay a de facto tax on all things.
Obama urgently called for Democrats and Republicans to compromise to avoid default. He praised House Speaker John Boehner's private willingness to do so (praise the speaker needed like a gallstone).
"Profiles in Courage" is sprinkled with tales of senators who acted heroically by fashioning courageous compromises in the face of public outcry whipped up by the zealots and demagogues of the ages. "Compromise need not mean cowardice," Kennedy wrote. "Indeed it is frequently the compromises and conciliators who are faced with the severest tests of political courage as they oppose the extremist views of their constituents."
But when Boehner appeared on all those TV and smart-phone screens, he was pre-set to political attack mode. He attacked Obama, insisted his Republican House plan of cuts and spending caps and a Constitutional balanced budget amendment is the only way forward. He never mentioned the word "compromise." Because to even mention it might cause junior House Republican reactionaries to throw a tantrum.
What is really going on inside the Grand Old Party is the opposite of a Profile in Courage. Some 87 rightwing extremists -- tea party-backed Republican freshmen -- have been holding their equally conservative but also knowledgeable leaders hostage to pledges to never-never-never raise taxes. And never-never-never permit more deficit spending.
Never mind that just paying the interest on the national debt (to avoid default), plus making the entitlement payments the government has promised its people, and paying for our national security will force us into deficit spending after August 2.
For weeks, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., undercut Boehner to win favor of these Know-Nothings. Now he's supporting Boehner's plan -- which is really a plan to force Obama back into this quicksand again in the 2012 election year, rather than extend the deal through to 2013. Never mind that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush raised the debt ceiling so many times in their presidencies.
For Boehner and Cantor to play politics with America's leadership of the global economy -- for the sake of crass presidential electioneering -- is unconscionable. They should have been publicly telling their tea party fringe the hard truths they know to be true.
Instead, they have posed for crassly political profiles that are sadly lacking in courage.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at email@example.com.