Remarks by Senator Edward M. Kennedy

Thank you, John [Seigenthaler], for that very generous introduction. John’s leadership as Chairman of the Profile in Courage Award Committee plays a crucial role in finding the outstanding winners we honor here today. He is a most respected journalist and a valued friend to all the members of the Kennedy family.

The Profile in Courage Award was instituted more than a decade ago by the Kennedy Library Foundation as a memorial to my brother. It was created to recognize those elected leaders who had courageously taken difficult principled stands. We also hoped it would encourage those currently in office to be more willing to take on the tough issues, and to demonstrate the quality of political courage that my brother so admired and that is all too rare in public life today.

Our goal was to honor political courage in contemporary elected officials at whatever level of government they serve – federal, state, or local, and we hope that this award will continue to encourage the American people to value political courage more highly in their elected representatives.

In his prize-winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” President Kennedy recounts the stories of historic Senators and other elected officials who demonstrated political courage by challenging their party leaders or powerful special interests – often at risk to their own careers.

He would have been especially impressed by this year’s winners, for all stood up against special interests on behalf of those who could not do so themselves.

Paul Muegge, former Oklahoma state senator, and Cindy Watson, former North Carolina state representative, had the political courage to stand up to the powerful hog farming industry when it became clear to them that it was endangering the health of their constituents and the environment of the states they call home.

Senator Muegge, a strong Democrat, and Representative Watson, a devoted Republican, both came to the same conclusion after hearing from citizens concerned about the industry’s impact on their lives, and investigating the matter themselves.

Paul Muegge is a farmer by profession and his courageous effort to protect the environment reminded me that our Founding Fathers, and first elected officials, were mostly farmers too. Like him, they were men who loved the land, and they would be proud of Paul Muegge’s efforts to save our land from pollution.

Both Paul Muegge and Cindy Watson heard from their constituents that the vast lagoons of hog waste on the large hog farms was polluting the groundwater and E. coli bacteria was being found in well water. The horrible stench coming from the hog farms was so suffocating that it was causing asthma in children. Some people said they couldn’t leave their homes without being overcome. It was destroying the tranquility in neighborhoods and undermining the ability of shops to do business.

As one who had once gone to Washington, three decades ago, to lobby for the right of farmers to use toxic chemicals on their own land, Senator Muegge said, “We started meeting with the environmental groups and we found we had more in common with them than differences. We couldn’t exempt ourselves from environmental regulation anymore.”

As an interior decorator, Cindy Watson knew many of her neighbors. She had been in their homes and won their gratitude and trust. They became her base when she decided to run for office. She became the first woman, and first Republican, to be elected to the North Carolina House from her district.

The more she heard from her alarmed constituents, the more she realized the quality of life she wanted for them was being devastated by the large hog farms. She realized she had to take action in spite of her long distrust of government regulation, and this was one of those times when regulation was necessary.

Both Senator Muegge and Representative Watson recognized that to introduce legislation to regulate the corporate hog farm industry was risking the wrath of the industry. But they went ahead and did what they believed was right. The impact of an accidental spill of 25 million gallons of hog waste into a North Carolina river, which proved to be the worst spill in the state’s history, reinforced the need for action.

As a result of their efforts, regulations were enacted to control or phase out the hog-waste lagoons, have water and soil testing, mandate that new hog farms be set back from neighboring properties and put a moratorium on new operations.

It was a resounding defeat for an industry used to having its own way and the large hog farmers didn’t take it lying down. As pointed out by an environmental lobbyist, “Everybody knew there would be big money coming in that could take them out at election time.”

Opponents well financed by the hog farming industry targeted Paul Muegge and Cindy Watson. Cindy Watson was challenged by a hog farmer in the Republican primary.

Paul Muegge fought back and prevailed by a winning margin of only 67 votes. He continued to do battle with agribusiness on related issues such as poultry waste and fought unfair practices by processing plants. He was not always successful but he became a shining example of stewardship of the land, concern for the environment and safety of all the people of his state.

Although she was the incumbent, Cindy Watson, sadly, was defeated. But defeat did not discourage her, for she strongly believed in doing her duty – doing what was right. As she said at the time, “I did not create this issue. This issue came to me and I can’t walk away from it.”

President Kennedy said that “one person can make a difference and everyone should try.” Paul Muegge and Cindy Watson not only tried, they succeeded. They made a difference and inspired others by their example. They are true profiles in courage.

Our third recipient of this year’s Award is a woman of remarkable courage, Dr. Sima Samar of Afghanistan. As a physician providing health care and education for women, she championed the rights of women in her embattled country under the most trying circumstances and secretly provided help to women and girls during the time of the Taliban.

Since 1989, when she established a non-governmental, and nonprofit organization call Shuhada which opened four hospitals, ten health clinics and numerous schools for girls in Afghanistan. More than 20,000 girls have benefited from her schools.

Dr. Samar is the leading voice in her nation for the rights of women. Facing one of the world’s most severe challenges, Dr. Samar has become an inspiring example of one woman’s dedication to begin the transformation of an entire society.

She told the Washington Post “during the 23 years of war, there were no women in any decision-making or policy roles…we had to make a space for ourselves.”

With the fall of the Taliban, Dr. Samar has been able to return to a public life of advocacy for women and human rights. She was appointed Minister of Women’s Affairs in the interim Afghan government. Continuing her dedication to courage in all circumstances, she maintained her opposition to the Islamic legal code – even though this view has increased the political pressure on her and the threats against her. She now is the Chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission where she continues to fight for the rights of women.

Although the Taliban no longer rule, the plight for Afghan women continues to be dire. The most recent State Department human rights report makes clear that significant barriers to equal rights and equal treatment for women remain.

Eighty-five percent of Afghan women are illiterate. Nearly 40 percent of basic primary-health facilities in Afghanistan have no female health professionals. This is a major problem for women’s health in a country where women are discouraged from seeking health care from male professionals.

Laws continue to discriminate against women. Two to three thousand women have been expelled from school, because married women are not permitted to attend high school classes. Male relatives must give permission for women to obtain passports.

Forced marriages have reportedly led to a recent increase in the number of suicide by women. Dr. Samar herself lives under constant threat, with men pounding on her gate late at night to intimidate her.

Today, as the Afghan people struggle every day to build a new society, she continues her advocacy for women’s rights and human rights. Day in and day out, her magnificent efforts to transform Afghanistan are heroic and an inspiration to us all. Her entire life is a Profile in Courage and she is truly one of Afghanistan’s – and the world’s – great heroes.

It is now my privilege to introduce the individual who’s leadership at the Kennedy Library and on the Profile In Courage Committee is the moving force and guiding spirit for us all. She is a joy to all her family and no one would be more proud of her, and all she has accomplished, than her parents.

I know they would be especially impressed by all she is doing to improve the schools for the students of New York City. She represents the best ideals of those extraordinary years of the New Frontier - - Caroline Kennedy.

Remarks delivered by Senator Edward M. Kennedy at the Profile in Courage Award Ceremony, Monday, May 24, 2004.