President Gerald Ford was honored for his courage in making a controversial decision of conscience to pardon former President Richard M. Nixon. On September 8, 1974, President Ford granted a “full, free and absolute pardon” to former President Nixon “for all offenses against the United States which he...has committed or may have committed or taken part in” while he was president. Nixon accepted the pardon. The response from the press, Congress and the general public was overwhelmingly negative. Appearing before the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, President Ford explained under oath, in the first sworn congressional testimony ever given by a sitting president, that there were no deals connected with the pardon. Ford wrote in his autobiography that Nixon's pardon “wasn't motivated primarily by sympathy for his plight or by concern over the state of his health. It was the state of the country’s health at home and around the world that worried me.” In 1976, President Ford lost the White House to Jimmy Carter in one of the closest elections in American history. Many historians believe Ford’s pardon of Nixon contributed to his defeat.
Thank you very much, Caroline and Senator Kennedy, for those kind words and for the great honor of this Award.
History has been defined as "argument without end." Come to think of it, Ted, much the same could be said of the United States Senate. No doubt arguments over the Nixon pardon will continue for as long as historians relive those tumultuous days. But I would be less than candid - indeed, less than human - if I didn't tell you how profoundly grateful Betty and I are for this recognition. Indeed, the Award committee has displayed its own brand of courage.
But of course, around this place courage is contagious. To know Jack Kennedy, as I did, was to understand the true meaning of the word. Physical pain was an inseparable part of his life, but he never surrendered to it - any more than he yielded to freedom's enemies during the most dangerous moments of the nuclear age. President Kennedy understood that courage is not something to be gauged in a poll or located in a focus group. No advisor can spin it. No historian can backdate it. For, in the age-old contest between popularity and principle, only those willing to lose for their convictions are deserving of posterity's approval.
Half a century ago I entered politics because of a big idea. Rejecting the Midwestern isolationism of my youth, I learned on a combat aircraft carrier in the South Pacific that leadership carries with it a price - a price measured in the twentieth century by eternal vigilance against those who would put the soul itself in bondage.
In the course of almost 88 years, I have seen more than my share of miracles. I have witnessed the defeat of Nazi tyranny and the destruction of hateful walls that once divided free men from those enslaved.
Here at home, thanks to the bravery of men like John Lewis, we are belatedly honoring the promises we made to one another at the founding of the Republic. We have at last begun to recognize women for their talents and revere them for their contributions. My generation has celebrated the end of polio, cheered as men left their footprints on the moon, and scratched its head while trying to figure out the difference between a gigabyte and a Happy Meal.
None of this just happened. It happened because people of conscience refused to be passive in the face of injustice, or indifferent to the demands of democracy. Now a new generation, in a new century, is summoned to complete our unfinished work and to purge our politics of cynicism. "Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before…Our political life is becoming so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men that the idealist who dreams of independent statesmanship is rudely awakened by the necessities of election and accomplishment."
So wrote then-Senator John Kennedy in introducing Profiles in Courage. Forty-five years later his concerns are more relevant than ever. If there is distrust out there -and there is - perhaps it is because there is so much partisan jockeying for advantage at the expense of public policy. At times it feels as if American politics consists largely of candidates without ideas, hiring consultants without convictions, to stage campaigns without content. Increasingly the result is elections without voters.
It doesn't have to be this way. Wherever I go these days, I sense a longing for community, and a desire on the part of Americans to be part of something bigger and finer than themselves. This is especially so among the young.
History tells us that it is only a matter of time before your generation is tested - just as ours was tested by economic depression, foreign wars, and the hateful regime of Jim Crow. Outwardly your America may not look the same as mine. New technologies, new forms of communications, new breakthroughs in science and medicine - all these promise to expand the frontiers of life in ways unimaginable just a few short years ago.
But amidst all that is new, may I suggest that you never lose the old faith - President Kennedy's faith - in an America that is better, fairer, and more humane with each generation. For all our imperfections, we remain very much a work in progress. I hope you will reject those on both extremes who mistake the honest clash of ideas for a holy war. The bigger the issue, the greater the need for political courage. It was true when I entered the political arena in defiance of those who believed the United States was divinely placed between two oceans to avoid foreign confrontation. Proudly in my first campaign for Congress, I was one of the original compassionate conservatives.
It was true when John F. Kennedy rallied his countrymen for the long twilight struggle to ensure freedom's survival on the narrow window ledge of nuclear vulnerability. It will be just as true for 21st century Americans who pursue JFK's vision of public service as the most purposeful way to make a life, as well as a living. May God bless you, and may God bless America.
Remarks delivered by former President Gerald R. Ford at the Profile in Courage Award Ceremony, May 21, 2001.
I'm honored to be here today with President Gerald R. Ford, the winner of this year’s Profile in Courage Award, and Congressman John Lewis, the recipient of the Profile in Courage Lifetime Achievement Award.
Today we honor two outstanding leaders who withstood the heat of controversy and persevered in their beliefs about what was in our country’s best interests. History has proved them right.
This is the 12th year of this annual award, and I am proud that it has become so recognized as symbol of noble public service. It was inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by President Kennedy, and it was instituted to celebrate his life and his belief that political courage must be valued and honored.
We hope that the Profile in Courage awards will encourage young men and women to enter public service -- and that it will inspire political leaders at the local, state, and national level to dare to take on even the most difficult issues, and demonstrate their own devotion to high principle.
In his book, President Kennedy told the stories of courageous political leaders who faced crucial decisions and made them under great pressure, and often at great risk to their own careers. I believe my brother would be especially pleased with our winners this year. He would feel that their stories of courage would have made outstanding new chapters in his book.
At a time of national turmoil, America was fortunate that it was Gerald Ford who took the helm of the storm-tossed ship of state. Unlike many of us at the time, President Ford recognized that the nation had to move forward, and could not do so if there was a continuing effort to prosecute former President Nixon. So President Ford made a courageous decision, one that historians now say cost him his office, and he pardoned Richard Nixon.
I was one of those who spoke out against his action then. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us. He eminently deserves this award, and we are proud of his achievement.
Our other winner this year, John Lewis, is a legend for his courageous leadership over so many years in the civil rights movement. For a generation he has asked America to be all it could be. Despite more than 40 arrests and countless vicious beatings, John Lewis never stopped believing in the ideals of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He organized his fellow citizens and helped them to obtain their most fundamental right in a democracy -- the right to vote -- and he has continued to fight for civil rights ever since.
He rose from poverty to become a member of the United States Congress, where he continues to lead the battle against injustice wherever he finds it. In John Lewis, we are humbled to see a person of towering physical and moral courage – a man who has accomplished what so many others would fear to try. He is indeed a worthy recipient of the Profile in Courage Lifetime Achievement Award.
It is now my privilege to introduce President Kennedy’s daughter Caroline. She will read the Profile in Courage Citations for our honorees and present their awards. Caroline is the graceful force behind these annual awards, and she is a joy to all of us who know and love her. Every day, she reflects the spirit and ideals of her parents, and makes us proud of all of her accomplishments. We thank her for her wonderful leadership here at the Library -- Caroline Kennedy.
Remarks delivered by Senator Edward M. Kennedy on presenting the 2001 Profile in Courage Award to President Gerald R. Ford and the Lifetime Achievement Award to Congressman John Lewis, May 21, 2001.