Acceptance Speech

Members of the President's family, Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, family and friends.

Thank you very much. I am deeply honored to receive this award. I accept it on behalf of all those who believe, as I do, that doing what's right can't be wrong.

For Christmas three years ago the members of my cabinet gave me a leather-bound original edition of Profiles in Courage to replace my old dog-eared copy. I was very touched at the time, just as I am today.

Yet, as special as this day is for Lucinda and me, I must tell you, I look forward to another day — when public servants who follow the dictates of their conscience are regarded not as heroes worthy of awards, but simply as men and women worthy of the offices to which they are entrusted.

President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were heroes of mine. They helped inspire me to choose public service as a career. They taught us all that having principles is important and sticking to them is even more important.

They led us at a time when possibilities seemed endless; when President Kennedy implored us to ask not what our country could do for us, he was preaching the value of responsibility.

If the actions taken by Governor Weicker and me are noteworthy, perhaps it is only because they follow an era in which so many, in and out of government, turned their backs on that bedrock value.

We Americans are the heirs of two enduring images.

On one hand is the rugged individualist with true grit who stakes his claim on a piece of ground and makes his fortune wholly on his own.

On the other hand, in seeming contradiction, are the men and women who worked together to clear the fields, plant the crops and raise the barns.

In recent years we've seen those images become polarized. One school of thought told people "you're on your own."

And the other one said "we'll take care of you — no matter how much or how little effort you put forth."

Both were misguided.

Both failed to understand that it is not community or individual responsibility that makes America great. It's both.

We need to restore the essential balance between rights and responsibilities, between entitlement and duty, that has always been the creed of our political faith.

I don't believe in carrying those who can walk; neither do I believe in refusing a hand to those who stumble.

I believe instead that all of us must accept responsibility — for ourselves, our families, and our communities. And if we are fortunate enough to be chosen for public office, we must accept the responsibility of making difficult decisions.

We don't get to choose the times in which we live, but we do get the chance to determine how we respond to those times.

We can consign our children to inadequate schools, or we can choose to make our schools better.

We can stand by and watch our economy slowly crumble, or we can choose to invest again in our people and their potential.

We can cower at the threats of powerful special interest groups who would put the deadliest weapons into the hands of criminals, or we can dare to break their grip and take back our democracy.

It's up to us.

In New Jersey, we're trying to live up to our responsibility by standing up to the gun lobby on behalf of safety and sanity, and standing up for the right of every child to get the education that will allow them to live up to their boldest dreams.

You know, the first thing I learned as Governor is that you can't please everybody. The second thing I learned is, some days, you can't please anybody.

So be it. Conflict is inevitable. It's the price we pay for change in a democracy.

If I've taken stands that have sometimes upset some people — and I have - it's not because I hold their opinion in contempt.

It is because, as President Kennedy wrote in Profiles, I have "faith in people's ultimate sense of justice, faith in their ability to honor courage and respect judgment, and faith that in the long run they will act unselfishly for the good of the nation."

As Governor, I've seen that faith in action. And I've had my own faith strengthened by it.

I've seen real courage in parents who are working to break the chains of welfare dependency and give their children a better life.

I've seen courage in entrepreneurs who are taking chances and creating jobs during the worst recession in our lifetime.

I've seen courage in teachers who are inspiring children to learn and to believe that the future can be better even in the midst of oppressive poverty.

And I've seen it in the mother of a young girl killed with an assault weapon who stood up to the NRA. Her sadness was so overwhelming she couldn't speak; she just stood embracing a photograph of her murdered daughter. Yet her grief and her courage said more than I ever could about the horror of gun violence, and the responsibility each of us has to end it.

Courage may be born from the principles at the core of our being. But for me, it has been nurtured by people like those whom I have just mentioned. And so, to you, and particularly to them, I say thank you.

Remarks by Governor Jim Florio, 1993 Recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, May 24, 1993.