Last summer during the debate on the Patients' bill of Rights, I took my
daughter, Rose, to see her Great-Uncle Teddy at work in the United States
Senate. When we arrived, he was speaking on the floor, so we waited in the
colorful hallway outside the Senate Chamber. We spotted a few senators talking
quietly with their staff members. Around a corner, throngs of visitors shuffled
past as pages and interns ran for the elevators, and lobbyists waited by the
marble busts - a typical morning in the Capitol.
Thrilled to see us when he emerged from the chamber,
Teddy led us up stairs, around corners, into side chambers in search of his
colleagues and friends. We seemed to be at the end of our tour when he grabbed
Rose's arm and said, "You haven't seen the Senate Reception Room." Off we went
again, loping to keep up, until we turned a corner and stopped. I looked up at
the ceiling and saw portraits of legendary nineteenth-century senators, Daniel
Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun - men who followed their conscience in
pursuit of the national interest - as I listened to Teddy tell the story of how
my father had gotten the idea for his Pulitzer prize-winning book, Profiles
. My father's own political career, that of his brother Bobby, and now for so many years the work Teddy has done, inspired a generation of Americans to believe in the power of government and to share the conviction that politics can truly be a noble profession. As I stood in that room, I felt a continuity of spirit reaching across time and into the future as I looked at Teddy and Rose.
This book is part of that continuum. I am grateful that so many writers of distinction brought their insights and wisdom to illuminate the acts of courage chronicled here. My father believed in the power of words to lead, to inspire, and to bring about change in the world. My mother took great pride in the fact that the Kennedy Library is the home of the papers of Ernest Hemingway, whose definition of courage as "grace under pressure" was my father's favorite. This book is a celebration of my parents' love of literature, as well as their commitment to public service. I hope that the stories here will inspire another generation to believe in the power of words, the importance of public service, and the necessity of political courage. For it is in words that deeds live on.
In Profiles in Courage
, my father told the stories of eight senators who acted on principle and in the national interest, even though it put their own political careers at risk. One was Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, the greatest orator of his time, who voted for the Compromise of 1850, which prevented the South from seceding and preserved the Union for an additional, and critical, ten years. His vote placed him at odds with his constituents and his party, and it cost him a chance to be president. Another was Thomas Hart Benton, the fiery Missouri senator who fought to keep slavery from expanding West despite representing a slaveholding constituency that ultimately dismissed him from office after thirty years of statesmanship. Perhaps the most dramatic story is that of Edmund G. Ross, newly elected from Kansas, who followed his conscience, rather than the wishes of his party, and cast the deciding vote against the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, knowing it would cost him his career. "" . . . looked down into my open grave," Ross later wrote of the moments before he cast his vote. Neither Ross nor the seven other Republican senators who voted with him were ever returned to the Senate.
Each of these men displayed a rare form of courage, sacrificing their own future, and that of their families, to do what they believed was right for our country. Their example comes down to us across the years, their stories are part of our history, and their spirit lives on. The John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award is presented annually to an elected official who carries on this tradition. When we created the award in 1990, some doubted we would be able to find politicians worthy of the honor. They were wrong. This book tells the stories of men and women at all levels of government, in all parts of our country, across the political spectrum, who have all stood fast for ideals of America.
The courage celebrated here comes in many forms. It is the courage to compromise, as well as the courage to stand alone, the courage to cross party lines and build consensus, as well as the courage to stay the course. Sometimes one single selfless act sums up a career. At other times, a politician must follow the law, or his conscience, over a course of time, hoping that ultimately his courage will be recognized when passions have cooled.
At first, and then again last year, we sought to honor politicians like those in the original book, whose singular acts of courage in protecting the national interest put their own career at risk. When President Gerald R. Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon, barely one month after taking office at the height of the Watergate scandal, he was almost universally condemned. Yet that act of conscience in the national interest, though it may have cost Ford the presidency, has stood the test of time.
Many stories in my father's book revolved around the crisis of slavery that tore our country apart in the nineteenth century. The modern struggle for civil rights has produced counterparts of equal bravery. There are men like Congressman Carl Elliott from Alabama and Congressman Charles Weltner of Georgia. Elliot fought for equal opportunity in education and was redistricted out of his congressional seat in retaliation for his principled stand. Weltner took an oath to support his party ticket until segregationist Lester Madox became the candidate for governor, whereupon Weltner followed his conscience and resigned his seat, rather than violate his oath or his belief that segregation was wrong.
The Committee revisited the civil rights movement in 2001 on the fortieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides, when we presented Congressman John Lewis with a Lifetime Achievement Profile in Courage Award. In spite of brutal beatings and more than forty arrests, Lewis has never wavered in his commitment to civil rights, human rights, nonviolence, and securing for all Americans perhaps the most fundamental right in a democracy: the right to vote.
Local battles are often among the most intense political fights, for public servants are placed in conflict with friends, neighbors, and colleagues with whom they share a lifetime of experience. Often too, their family's security is at risk. Rage, anger, and hostility can be directed not only at public officials, but also at those they love. Inspiring courage was demonstrated by Judge Charles Price when he ruled against another judge's defiantly unconstitutional courtroom display of the Ten Commandments. The Ward was given to Country Attorney Nickolas Murnion, who stood alone for the rule of law against the irrational and heavily armed Freemen, and to School Superintendent Corkin Cherubini, who took on an entrenched system of race-based tracking in the schools of Calhoun County, Georgia.
Other awards recognize that new forms of courage are required to meet the challenges of our changing political landscape. In modern times, regional interests often become subsumed by special interests. Some of today's most difficult conflicts revolve around those who would bend the system to serve their own ends. The politicians who take them on do so at grave risk. These battles may require the courage to battle party leadership rather than local constituents, yet the fight is just as fierce and the stakes are just as high. Congressment Mike Synar and Henry B. Gonzalez, Governor Jim Florio, and Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold were willing to risk their careers to preserve the integrity of our system.
New groups of Americans - women, African Americans,
Latinos - have entered the political system, embracing a different kind of
courage: the courage to compromise. Those entering the political system from
historically disenfranchised groups are often taking a great risk simply by
running for office. Once elected, they frequently are pitted against established
and powerful interests. At times, they risk no only their political advancement
but their physical safety, even though they remain popular with their
constituents. Former California State Senator, now U.S. Representative Hilda
Solis, who brought the issue of environmental justice to the forefront on behalf
of the people of her ravaged district, exemplifies this kind of courage.