Paul Greenberg

LITTLE ROCK -- Mark Pryor (Very D-Ark.) is this state's senior senator, and he should be thanked for making the choice in this fall's election for the U.S. Senate here in Arkansas more than crystal clear.

Talk about the halogen spotlight of public attention, the senator's comments last week on MSNBC, the perfect partisan forum for them, cast a blinding light not just on his idea of what his race for the Senate is all about, but his idea what the U.S. Senate and indeed political life in general is about.

It wasn't just that Sen. Pryor discounted the relevance of his opponent's military record in this campaign. But that the senator was dismissive of the whole, defining quality that his Republican challenger Tom Cotton has stood for throughout his life -- in rural Yell County, Ark., at Harvard, in the law and in the Army, in the U.S. House of Representatives and now as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

And what is that quality? Whatever it's called, it's something people have recognized in Tom Cotton at every stage of his coming of age. Just as the late Richard S. Arnold was recognized at Yale, and then at Harvard Law, long before he became a great jurist, some say the greatest since Learned Hand never to have sat on the Supreme Court of the United States.

Call that quality a capacity for greatness, a belief in principle even when principle isn't easy to uphold. It's not just an ability to cut through all the cant of politics but a record of doing so.

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John F. Kennedy mentioned that quality in the title of the book he wrote about great senators: "Profiles in Courage."

"This is a book," Sen. and later President Kennedy explained, "about that most admirable of human virtues -- courage." It may also be the most indispensable of virtues, for without it, all the others don't mean much. Any more than even the greatest of principles don't mean much if we lack the courage to practice them, especially in those times when they, and we, are tested. To quote John Kennedy's book:

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.