Acceptance Speech

Remarks of U.S. Senator Russell Feingold
1999 Profile in Courage Award Recipient
May 24,1999

Members of President Kennedy's family, Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, family, and friends. To all of you, I extend my gratitude as I accept this magnificent award. You have deeply touched me and all of us who have revered the Kennedy name in Wisconsin for nearly a half century. I share this award with family, loyal staff, friends and supporters.

To receive a call from Caroline Kennedy explaining that Senator McCain and I had won this award was not only thrilling but reminded me of how throughout my life, directly or indirectly, the Kennedy family has inspired me. This is especially true of Senator Ted Kennedy. It is a joy to work with him, to have had him introduce me for my first speech on the floor of the Senate and to follow his lead on so many issues from health care to human rights. Anyone who really follows the Senate knows one sometimes overlooked fact: Ted Kennedy is one of the most skilled, one of the most passionate, and easily one of the best United States Senators of the 20th century.

I'm holding in my hand my own original 35-cent copy of Profiles in Courage that I read as a young teenager. I loved it. It fueled my not very well hidden interest in going into politics and maybe even becoming a U.S. Senator. But its influence was not simply to make me want to be a senator. Rather, this thin little book spoke volumes about what kind of a senator it is worthwhile to be. What Profiles in Courage illustrates is the role risk and sacrifice can or should play in a career in public service.

Now, I am under no illusions about the different degrees of risk or sacrifice that public service can entail. There can be no comparison to the sacrifices of the Kennedy family. There can be no comparison to the sacrifices of a John McCain. What these people have given us, however, is a sense of what courage means.

As I was preparing to run for reelection in 1998, I was hoping to win and to return to much unfinished business for Wisconsin and the nation including my bipartisan efforts with John McCain to pass our bill. In the spirit of our legislation, I decided to voluntarily limit my spending in the manner that we hope will become the practice for all candidates. I did not plan for it to be dramatic, and would have been quite content with an easy win. But the situation reminded me just a little bit of President Kennedy's response to a young boy who asked him, "How did you become a war hero?" The President answered, "They sank my boat" After I realized that my opposition was going to lake advantage of my voluntary spending limit by infusing millions of dollars of soft money into the race, I had to make another decision and that was whether to have my allies respond in kind. I simply decided I could not justify being reelected on that basis. But this was not an attempt at political suicide. I honestly believed that if I limited my spending, the people of Wisconsin would see what was happening and would take control. And they did.

But for me this award is not about recommending unilateral spending limits to other candidates. It is about the crying need to pass real campaign finance reform, so that all candidates would have to abide by some reasonable and fair rules. That's what the McCain-Feingold bill is about. And when it comes to that bill, the real courage is on the McCain side of the equation. It was John McCain who was in the majority when be proposed this idea. It was John McCain who was willing to accept a number of ideas which have sometimes been associated with Democratic bills. It is John McCain who has consistently stood up to his own leadership. And it is John McCain who knows that his presidential primary opponents may try to use that bipartisanship against him. But I know that for him, this is a matter of honor. I believe I can speak for both of us when I say this award is the ideal way to spur us on to get the last few votes we need to break the filibuster and put an end to this system of legalized bribery that has overtaken our democracy.

Before introducing my co-recipient, I want to again thank the Kennedy Library Foundation and the Kennedy family. I want to thank the people of Wisconsin who showed that things could still be done another way, just as Wisconsinites did 100 years ago with the advent of the Progressive movement under the leadership of Fighting Bob LaFollette. Wisconsin has always been a beacon for the nation when it comes to clean government.

And most importantly, I want to thank President John F. Kennedy. It's been said countless times by so many, but it is a central truth of our era. John F. Kennedy genuinely inspired our generation. His life and his memory were the overriding influences that made so many of us believe in public service. I experienced these influences as a child and a teenager and regret that the young people of today do not have a John F. Kennedy to let them see a future beyond the range of negative influence and role models that they confront every day. I am grateful for the hope and the direction that President Kennedy gave so many of us when we were young.

His brother, Robert F. Kennedy often spoke of politics as an honorable profession and when Bobby memorialized his brother at the 1964 Democratic Convention he chose a passage from Romeo and Juliet that spoke so beautifully to what honor JFJK brought to our profession:

and, when he shall die,

take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will he in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun

So many of us in our generation wished only to be like one of those little stars helping to illuminate the legacy of President John F. Kennedy.

And so we must strive to give today's younger generation some sense of the value of public service that this award symbolizes. But it would not be right to suggest that there are no role models of courage for the youth of today. I am so honored to be associated with such a person. I give you my colleague, my friend, and my co-conspirator, Senator John McCain.