Remarks by Senator Edward M. Kennedy
It is a privilege to be here this morning to present the 1992 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to Governor Lowell Weicker of Connecticut.
The award was established by the Kennedy Library Foundation in 1989. Its purpose is to honor President Kennedy by honoring contemporary leaders in public life who demonstrate the quality of political courage that my brother valued so highly.
Political courage has many meanings. But as used by President Kennedy in his book Profiles in Courage, the words refer to elected officials who act in accord with their conscience, even at risk to their careers, by pursuing a larger vision of the national, state or local interest, in opposition to the prevailing views of their constituents.
The need for political courage is especially important today. Too often, elected officials are captives of public opinion polls, bending to the contemporary political winds and trends, unwilling to act on principle, reluctant to pursue unpopular courses of action or offend powerful and well-financed special interest groups.
In light of the many urgent challenges facing the country, there is a need for men and women in elective office who are willing to speak out and do what is right for their country and their community. The Profile in Courage Award is intended to promote the quality of political courage in public officials, and to encourage the American people to value that quality more highly and respect leaders who demonstrate it.
This year's winner of the award is no stranger to political courage. For eighteen years in the United States Senate, Lowell Weicker was a daily profile in courage. He was a powerful voice for principle, championing a wide range of causes for the powerless, challenging Democrats and Republicans alike, eloquently defending the Constitution against assaults on civil rights, thundering against injustice in ways that sometimes shook the Senate rafters but always shamed the status quo.
Often, they were lonely battles. But no cause could ever be considered truly lost when Lowell Weicker took it up.
The 1991 struggle over the enactment of a personal income tax in the State of Connecticut was vintage Lowell Weicker. He was well aware of the long-standing anti-tax tradition in the state. He understood the difficulty of the challenge — but he also saw the need.
He reviewed the economic facts of life and came to a principled decision. His state, caught in a downward spiral of debt and decline, could not continue on its traditional anti-tax course, when that course had clearly failed.
So, against all odds, in the teeth of the prevailing view, he threw down the gauntlet and took a courageous stand for a different course. He proposed a new mix of revenues that included a personal income tax, in order to relieve the burden of an exorbitant sales tax that was unfair to the needy and an exorbitant business tax that was driving business out of state.
Perhaps no public figure of our time has been so vilified for a stand on principle as Governor Lowell Weicker. He showed great political courage in taking that stand, and great personal courage in seeing the battle through. In the end, after months of bitter and brutal controversy in the state, and after a stormy series of debates in the legislature that saw him veto three alternative budgets without the tax, the Weicker plan finally prevailed, and so did his vision and his leadership.
It is impossible to tell what the future holds for Lowell Weicker. The seas seem calmer now. The results of the voting in the state last week suggest that the ground has moved, and that a political stand for the state income tax today is not necessarily political suicide. If so, it is because our guest of honor saw the right, and helped the people of his state to see it too.
As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, taxes are the price we pay for civilized society. One of the greatest challenges we face today at every level of government is to find ways to pay the bill for our civilized society fairly, without borrowing unwisely from the future or decimating needed public services.
Some would continue to avoid the challenge. They would postpone the day of reckoning longer, and defer the kind of difficult decision that Lowell Weicker made. They propose to amend the Constitution to deal with our federal budget crisis, as if somehow the words of the Constitution can be made to supply the political courage that Congress and the Administration lack.
The courage and the career of Lowell Weicker stand against that flawed and futile approach. Elected officials cannot lead by running from the issues. It is a privilege to introduce a man who took a different and higher path, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Winner for 1992, a profile in courage for our time, Governor Lowell Weicker of Connecticut.
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Remarks delivered by Senator Edward M. Kennedy at the presentation of the 1992 Profile in Courage Award to Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, May 28, 1992.