May 21, 2001
Thank you very much, Caroline and Senator Kennedy, for those kind words and for the great honor of this Award.
History has been defined as "argument without end." Come to think of it, Ted, much the same could be said of the United States Senate. No doubt arguments
over the Nixon pardon will continue for as long as historians relive those tumultuous days. But I would be less than candid - indeed, less than human - if I didn't tell you how profoundly grateful Betty and I are for this recognition. Indeed, the Award committee has displayed its own brand of courage.
But of course, around this place courage is contagious. To know Jack Kennedy, as I did, was to understand the true meaning of the word. Physical pain was an inseparable part of his life, but he never surrendered to it - any more than he yielded to freedom's enemies during the most dangerous moments of the nuclear age. President Kennedy understood that courage is not something to be gauged in a poll or located in a focus group. No advisor can spin it. No historian can backdate it. For, in the age-old contest between popularity and principle, only those willing to lose for their convictions are deserving of posterity's approval.
Half a century ago I entered politics because of a big idea. Rejecting the Midwestern isolationism of my youth, I learned on a combat aircraft carrier in the South Pacific that leadership carries with it a price - a price measured in the twentieth century by eternal vigilance against those who would put the soul itself in bondage.
In the course of almost 88 years, I have seen more than my share of miracles. I have witnessed the defeat of Nazi tyranny and the destruction of hateful walls that once divided free men from those enslaved.
Here at home, thanks to the bravery of men like John Lewis, we are belatedly honoring the promises we made to one another at the founding of the Republic. We have at last begun to recognize women for their talents and revere them for their contributions. My generation has celebrated the end of polio, cheered as men left their footprints on the moon, and scratched its head while trying to figure out the difference between a gigabyte and a Happy Meal.
None of this just happened. It happened because people of conscience refused to be passive in the face of injustice, or indifferent to the demands of democracy. Now a new generation, in a new century, is summoned to complete our unfinished work and to purge our politics of cynicism.
"Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before ... Our political life is becoming so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men that the idealist who dreams of independent statesmanship is rudely awakened by the necessities of election and accomplishment."
So wrote then-Senator John Kennedy in introducing Profiles in Courage. Forty-five years later his concerns are more relevant than ever. If there is distrust out there - and there is - perhaps it is because there is so much partisan jockeying for advantage at the expense of public policy. At times it feels as if American politics consists largely of candidates without ideas, hiring consultants without convictions, to stage campaigns without content. Increasingly the result is elections without voters.
It doesn't have to be this way. Wherever I go these days, I sense a longing for community, and a desire on the part of Americans to be part of something bigger and finer than themselves. This is especially so among the young.
History tells us that it is only a matter of time before your generation is tested - just as ours was tested by economic depression, foreign wars, and the hateful regime of Jim Crow. Outwardly your America may not look the same as mine. New technologies, new forms of communications, new breakthroughs in science and medicine - all these promise to expand the frontiers of life in ways unimaginable just a few short years ago.
But amidst all that is new, may I suggest that you never lose the old faith - President Kennedy's faith - in an America that is better, fairer, and more humane with each generation. For all our imperfections, we remain very much a work in progress. I hope you will reject those on both extremes who mistake the honest clash of ideas for a holy war. The bigger the issue, the greater the need for political courage. It was true when I entered the political arena in defiance of those who believed the United States was divinely placed between two oceans to avoid foreign confrontation. Proudly in my first campaign for Congress, I was one of the original compassionate conservatives.
It was true when John F. Kennedy rallied his countrymen for the long twilight struggle to ensure freedom's survival on the narrow window ledge of nuclear vulnerability. It will be just as true for 21st century Americans who pursue JFK's vision of public service as the most purposeful way to make a life, as well as a living. May God bless you, and may God bless America.