On behalf of those Connecticut men and women holding office or not, who preferred truth with its aftermath of anger to the personal comfort of false governings, I accept this treasured award.
Members of the president's family, trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, selection committee, my own family, and friends, I've got to say to you, I'm finding it a little difficult to get cranked up into the speech because of the emotions of the moment, but I have to say to you that this makes the rough and tumble of public service worthwhile. This is the coinage in terms of the honor of which every politician dreams.
For the scientist, the moment is the Nobel or the Laskar. For the journalist, the Pulitzer. The actor, the Oscar. For those in government, it is the Kennedy. Whichever of these acknowledgments, for the recipient it is above all recognition of the pick-and-shovel aspect of a lifetime's work. Adjectives such as brilliant and incisive and glamorous, courageous, etc., heighten the honor in the public awareness. But for the honoree, it's enough to know you've done the job given to you in the best possible fashion. In this instance the word courage is prominent. Yet no man or woman sets out to do a courageous act. It is the facts and values of the times that juxtaposed to an honest effort defines the result.
President Kennedy in Profiles puts courage on display as a trait common to a panoply of American historical figures, and that's the attraction of the book. Yet it is another common ground traversed by the book, the author, the award and its recipients that shout for recognition today, specifically all were or are politicians, that most despised word in today's lexicon.
Profiles in Courage is not a textbook; it was a call to public service. And for John Kennedy it was not an academic exercise but rather the cornerstone of an administration yet to come. He was to deem a nation as eligible to serve in peace as in war.
Ben Franklin phrased it so: in this nation the people rule. But by 1960 too many had forgotten that demanding principle of a democracy. And now in 1992 even more of the citizenry sits on the sidelines or heads from the exits of civic duty. Profiles in Courage is a celebration, a celebration of public service, not a nostalgic remembrance of famous Americans of bygone days doing what is thought unattainable today.
I am proud to be a politician in a free society. It is the accolade of one's neighbors, not the dictate of a system or of one man. The courage attributed to me is the reflection of those I serve. For all the licks that anyone takes by choosing, any time a decision is made, for whatever those licks, there's the elation of having achieved for good purpose what none thought possible, and such feelings far exceed whatever the hurt for having tasted the battle.
Now admittedly not only office holders display spine, but I want to say to young America out there that in terms of the volume of opportunity there is no better profession in the world. It's the business of our democracy, if only enough people will do it.
The other day at Stanford High School in Connecticut I signed into law the constitutionally expressed idealism of a handful of students, specifically a law to permit the confidential testing, counseling and treatment of minors for the HIV virus without parental consent. By their own account, these children were scared, not just of AIDS but of what they perceived as an unresponsive adult world. And so they acted politically. They didn't walk out of the house called America, they rebuilt one of its rooms. While an adult generation moralized and so delayed care and cure, it was left to children to cross the road to tend the Samaritan.
Mark Twain said it best in his book “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court,” and I'm going to quote. He said, “I was from Connecticut, whose constitution declares that all political power is inherent in the people and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit and that they have at all times an undeniable and indefeasible right to alter their form of government in such a manner as they may think expedient. Under that gospel, the citizen who thinks he sees that the common will's political clothes are worn out and yet holds his peace and does not agitate for a new suit is disloyal. He is a traitor. That he may be the only one who thinks he sees this decay does not excuse him. It is his duty to agitate anyway and it is the duty of the others to vote him down if they do not see the matter as he does.”
So hurray for the constitutional troublemakers of our time. As others before them, they will write rather than savor American history, not as Democrats or Republicans or Independents, but as sons and daughters of America, born to opportunity, fated to pass on opportunity. And when that occurs the curse and the curses become applause, the threat, challenge overcome, the untouchable, today's virtue.
Thank you very much, and thank you all.
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Delivered at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum on May 28, 1992