Writing about politically courageous elected officials

The contest requires that the subject of your essay be an official publicly elected by the people of the United States since 1956 (the publication date of Profiles in Courage). U.S. and state representatives and senators, governors, mayors, and city council members are some examples of elected officials. Some counties elect district attorneys, judges, and the local school board.

Supreme Court Justices and the Attorney General of the United States are examples of appointed officials, as are the fourteen Secretaries that make up the President's Cabinet in the White House. Appointed officials are not elected by the people of the United States and are therefore not eligible subjects for your essay.

The whole concept of political courage revolves around an understanding of the risks and pressures that elected officials face and the difficult choices that politics often presents: choices between conscience and public sentiment, between moral principles and electoral success. Elected officials demonstrate political courage when they act for the common good, even if it means losing the next election.

Your essay should not be a biographical essay on an elected official. It should be a focused analysis of an act of political courage. Your essay should demonstrate that the elected official took a stand based on his or her beliefs. It should show how the actions of the official served the public interest or benefited the greater good. It should also show how the official’s stand was at odds with his/her constituents, or with interest groups instrumental to his/her success.

The best way to deepen your understanding of political courage is to read the book, Profiles in Courage. To learn more about political courage, see the Profile in Courage Award. You can also find excerpts from chapter one of Profiles in Courage  and read chapter summaries.

Writing an original essay

Select your essay subject carefully. We recommend that you choose an elected official who is less well known, whose story has not yet been told. Consider your local elected officials as possible subjects. Research your city councilors, school board members, etc. Identify the obstacles, dangers, and pressures that the elected official has encountered in addressing a political issue, and why you feel his/her course of action best serves the larger public interest.

To gain an understanding of the quality of research and writing expected of a winning essay, we strongly recommend reading the essays of past winners. See Winning Essays.

Creativity and Style

Whether you write about a local city councilor, a state or U.S. representative, a senator, or any other elected official, what will make your essay stand out to the judges is the story you tell and how you tell it. It's all in your style of writing. Your essay must be written in a clear and coherent manner and be free of grammar and spelling mistakes. Please proofread your essay several times before submitting it. We recommend that your nominating teacher carefully review your essay and give suggestions for improvement.

Researching your essay topic

Your arguments and opinions about the politically courageous elected official you are writing about must also be well supported by evidence from a variety of sources. You are encouraged to read John F. Kennedy's book, Profiles in Courage, and to consult several sources in researching your topic, such as newspaper articles, periodicals, articles from the internet, personal interviews with the subject of the essay (if s/he is available), books, etc. We strongly encourage you to choose sources carefully, checking for reliability and accuracy. Any sources consulted or used must be cited throughout and listed in a bibliography at the end of your essay. See Guidelines for Citations and Bibliographies.