The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award® is the nation's most prestigious honor for public servants.
Throughout his political career, President Kennedy inspired people to follow their conscience and to work for the benefit of their communities, their country, and their world. He believed that each person can make a difference, and that everyone should try. In particular, he wanted to restore a belief in politics as a noble profession and a calling to public service.
The Profile in Courage Award was created in 1989 by members of President Kennedy's family to honor President John F. Kennedy and to recognize and celebrate the quality of political courage that he admired most.
The award is named for President Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, which recounts the stories of eight U.S. Senators who risked their careers by taking principled stands for unpopular positions.
The Profile in Courage Award seeks to make Americans aware of the conscientious and courageous acts of their public servants, and to encourage elected officials to choose principles over partisanship – to do what is right, rather than what is expedient.
The award is presented annually to a public official or officials at the federal, state or local level whose actions best demonstrate the qualities of politically courageous leadership in the spirit of Profiles in Courage.
The Profile in Courage Award is administered by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. A distinguished bipartisan committee named by the Foundation reviews all nominations, and selects the recipient or recipients of the award.
The award is presented each May at a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in connection with the observance of President Kennedy’s May 29 birthday. The award is represented by a sterling silver lantern, modeled after the lantern on the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy. The lantern was designed by Edwin Schlossberg and crafted by Tiffany & Co.
This is a special day for my family and for the Kennedy Library and I want to thank all of you for coming to share it with us – especially half the population of the State of Iowa! It’s wonderful to have you all here to support our honorees and honor the memory of President Kennedy.
All my life people have told me that President Kennedy changed their lives – they decided to join the Peace Corps, run for office , volunteer in the inner city or in outer space, because he asked them to serve our country and do what they could to make this a more just and peaceful world.
The generation he inspired changed this country- they fought for civil rights, women’s rights, human rights and nuclear disarmament. They passed that inspiration down to their children and grandchildren. As the first truly modern President, he redefined America’s timeless values for a global audience and recognized the power of each individual to make a difference.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of his Presidency, my father’s time is becoming part of history – rather than living memory - yet President Kennedy’s words, his example and his spirit remain as vital as ever. At a time when young people are disillusioned with politics, we need to reach across the generations and recommit ourselves and our country to these ideals.
One way that we connect past and present is through the Profile in Courage Award. By honoring individuals who act on principle without regard for the personal consequences – we honor the quality that my father most admired in public life.
This is a special year for the Profiles in Courage Award because we are fortunate to recognize 4 outstanding Americans who demonstrate how critically important it is that men and women of courage serve in all branches of government.
The people we honor today each said they were surprised to learn that they had been chosen. They don’t think they did anything special, they were just doing their job. But for public officials, just doing their job often demands a special kind of courage. Standing up for human rights requires courage. Serving the interest of all citizens, not just the majority, requires courage.
As President Kennedy’s Ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, once observed, “It is far, far safer to be wrong with the majority than to be right alone.” We owe a great debt to the four people we honor today, for their courage and for the sacrifices they and their families have made to secure a more just future for all Americans.
[LANTERN PRESENTATION TO FORMER IOWA SUPREME COURT JUSTICES]
In 2009, in the landmark decision VARNUM v. BRIEN, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision holding that a statute limiting civil marriage to a union between a man and a woman violated the equal protection clause of the Iowa State Constitution. Iowa Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, and Justices David Baker and Michael Streit voted with their colleagues to make Iowa the third, and the first Midwestern state to allow gay marriage. The eloquent opinion states in part,
“Civil marriage must be judged under our constitutional standards of equal protection and not under religious doctrines or the religious views of individuals. This approach does not disrespect or denigrate the religious views of many Iowans who may strongly believe in marriage as a dual-gender union, but considers, as we must, only the constitutional rights of all people, as expressed by the promise of equal protection for all. We are not permitted to do less and would damage our constitution immeasurably by trying to do more...
In the final analysis, we give respect to the views of all Iowans on the issue of same-sex marriage—religious or otherwise—by giving respect to our constitutional principles. These principles require that the state recognize both opposite-sex and same-sex civil marriage.”
The decision of the Iowa Supreme Court sparked a political backlash. Nationally financed opponents of same-sex marriage ran an expensive and divisive political campaign intended to intimidate judges or legislators who opposed their views both in Iowa and beyond.
Under Iowa’s system, highly-qualified judges are appointed by the governor and then subject to a retention vote every eight years. The retention vote system is intended to provide a way to remove jurists who are unfit to serve, and the campaigns leading up to them have been characterized by the prevailing view that it is inappropriate for sitting judges to engage in political electioneering.
Yet in November 2010, despite their long and distinguished service to the state of Iowa, Marsha Ternus, David Baker and Michael Streit were ousted. They were the only three Supreme Court justices to stand for retention that year, and they are the only three judges in Iowa history to have lost a routine retention vote.
The justices were aware that they might pay a price even before they handed down their opinion. But they did not waver. In their decision, they wrote, “A statute inconsistent with the Iowa Constitution must be declared void, even though it may be supported by strong and deep-seated traditional beliefs and popular opinion.”
In 1963, as civil rights demonstrations throughout the South met with increasingly violent opposition, President Kennedy addressed the nation on television and said, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”
Just as judges stood firm for civil rights fifty years ago, Marsha Ternus, David Baker and Michael Streit, their colleagues on the Iowa Supreme Court, and dozens of other public servants all across the country – legislators, governors, mayors, city councilors and judges – have put their own careers on the line to uphold the rule of law and extend the fundamental promise of equal rights to same-sex couples.
This award is usually given to elected officials in the legislative branch of government. But in honoring these three principled jurists, we seek to remind all Americans of the importance of an independent judiciary and its role in safeguarding our most fundamental rights.
We are fortunate to have with us today three other Iowa Supreme Court justices who voted with our honorees. Justices David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht are here, along with current Chief Justice Mark Cady, who wrote the opinion in Varnum v. Brien. I would like to ask them to stand and be recognized.
And now I would like David Baker, former Iowa Supreme Court Justice, to come forward and accept the 2012 Profile in Courage Award.
[Lantern presentation to David Baker]
It is now my pleasure to present the 2012 to former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Michael Streit.
[Lantern presentation to Michael Streit]
I am now honored to ask Marsha Ternus, the former Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, to accept the 2012 Profile in Courage Award.
[Lantern presentation to Marsha Ternus]
[LANTERN PRESENTATION TO AMBASSADOR ROBERT FORD]
The public officials who made civil marriage possible for same-sex couples in Iowa are not the only ones who will tell you they were just doing their jobs. Ambassador Robert Ford will say the same thing.
Robert Ford answered President Kennedy’s call to service more than 30 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, and he has been serving our country – and the world - ever since. As a career member of the United States Foreign Service and a fluent Arabic speaker, he has served in critical diplomatic positions in Turkey, Egypt, Cameroon, Iraq, Bahrain, and Algeria.
Eighteen months ago, in a bid to encourage political reform in Syria, the United States dispatched Ambassador Ford to the Syrian Arab Republic to reestablish a diplomatic dialogue that had been corroded by years of political tension.
Ambassador Ford arrived in Damascus just when the glimmer of self-governance was sparking revolution all across the Middle East. As oppressive governments tried to extinguish the flames of democracy with violence, the people of the Arab world laid down their lives for the promise of a brighter future. Robert Ford might have watched all this unfold from the embassy.
President Kennedy’s observation, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” is a prescient description of the Syrian situation. Yet Robert Ford advanced the American ideals of freedom and democracy against a brutal and oppressive dictatorship willing to use deadly force against its own citizens engaged in peaceful demonstrations.
As he became a pointed critic of the Syrian government, and in the process, Ford himself became a target of violence.
In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” In Syria, Robert Ford did not remain silent. He walked through the streets all over Syria listening to those who yearned for the freedom to pursue their dreams. He used modern tools of communication to give voice to Syrians seeking a more just and peaceful society. He put his own safety at risk every time he met with a dissident or attended the funeral of a protestor. In all these ways, he redefined the role of American diplomacy and stood up for America ideals. But he will tell you he was just doing his job like so many other courageous diplomats, including his wife who is serving in Kenya and can’t be with us today.
This past February, the United States government closed its embassy and recalled Robert Ford to Washington, unable to ensure his safety. As the Middle East glows with the promise and the perils of freedom, Robert Ford’s public service is a tribute to my father’s belief that “one man of courage makes a majority”. He has shown the impact one person can have on the lives of millions and the obligation that each of us has to make a difference in this world.
My father would have been especially pleased to see a former Peace Corps Volunteer being honored in his name. I now ask Ambassador Robert Ford to come forward and accept the 2012 Profile in Courage Award.
[Lantern presentation to Ambassador Ford]