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President Barack Obama on receiving the 2017 Profile in Courage Award


(audience applauding and cheering) – Hello, everybody. Thank you so much. Thank you very much. Thank you. Please, everybody have a seat. Thank you. Thank you very much. Well, first of all,
thank you so much, Jack, for that really kind introduction. And I like the socks. (audience chuckling) I also want to thank you and
Rose and Tatiana and your dad for sharing Caroline with
us the past few years as America’s Ambassador to Japan. Caroline, you, true to form,
did your country proud, and I’m sure your father, mom would have been proudest of all. I sure was proud, and I’m
grateful for your friendship. I wanna thank Ken Feinberg for his service as Chairman of the John F.
Kennedy Library Foundation these past 12 years. He also rendered outstanding
service to my administration when we were dealing with
the BP oil spill, 9/11. He has rendered public service
again and again and again. We’re very grateful for him. It is wonderful… (audience applauding) It is wonderful to see Senators Markey and Senator Warren, my dear friend and former
governor, Deval Patrick, and his lovely wife Diane, (audience applauding) governors and members of
Congress, Cardinal O’Malley, one of the finest secretary of states ever to represent
America around the world, John Kerry, (audience
applauding) and Theresa, and the best vice president this country’s ever known, Mr. Joe Biden. (audience applauding and cheering) I also wanna thank Michelle Obama for after the presidency sticking with me. (audience laughing) Because I think she felt an obligation to the country to stay on. But once her official duties
were over, it wasn’t clear. (audience laughing) I love my wife. And I’m grateful for her.
(audience applauding) And I do believe that it was
America’s great good fortune to have her as First Lady. (audience applauding and cheering) So I am humbled by this
evening and to be honored by a family that has given
this country so much, a family that’s challenged
us to ask what we can do for our country, to dream and say why not, to seek a cause that endures, and sail against the wind in its pursuit. That’s what this family
has done for America. And to all the members
of the Kennedy family that are here tonight, thank you. I could not be more grateful to the Profile in Courage
Award Committee for this honor. I’m also grateful that, unlike
the Nobel Prize Committee, you waited until I was out of office. (audience laughing) How fitting that we
gather here this month, the 100th anniversary of
President Kennedy’s birth. I was born the year he took office, which makes me 55 years old. Had he lived to finish two terms, he would have been just 51. And he remarked on that possibility once. “It has been suggested,” he said, “that whether I serve one or
two terms in the presidency, “I will find myself at
the end of that period “at what might be called the awkward age, “too old to begin a career and too young “to write my memoirs.” Now, I hadn’t seen this quote when I wrote my first memoir at 33. (audience laughing) I’m now in the middle of my second. Moreover, I expect to be busy
if not with a second career then at least a second act. But it is true that I’m at the age, at that turn in the road,
where one looks back as well as forward to remember
one, where one has been, so as better to chart where one is going. And one thing I’m certain is that I was lucky to be born into that New Frontier, a new world, and a new generation of Americans. My life in many ways would
not have been possible without the vision that John F. Kennedy etched into the character and hearts of America. For those of us of a certain
age, the Kennedys symbolized a set of values and
attitudes about civic life that made it such an attractive calling. The idea that politics in fact could be a noble and worthwhile pursuit. The notion that our
problems, while significant, are never insurmountable. The belief that America’s
promise might embrace those who had once been
locked out or left behind and that opportunity and
dignity would no longer be restricted to the few
but extended to the many. The responsibility that each
of us have to play a part in our nation’s destiny, and by virtue of being Americans, play a part in the destiny of the world. I can say truthfully that the example of Jack and Bobby Kennedy
helped guide me into politics and that the guidance of Teddy Kennedy made me a better public servant once I arrived in Washington. I have to imagine it would
give them great pride to see a new generation
of Kennedys, like Joe, carving their own proud
paths in public service. (audience applauding) For whatever reasons I receive this award, for whatever the scale, the
challenges that we overcame, and the scope of progress
we made over my presidency, it is worth pointing out that in many ways the times that President
Kennedy confronted were far more perilous than the
ones that we confront today. He entered the Oval Office at just 43, only a few years after Khrushchev had threatened to bury America. Wars raged around the world. Large swaths of the country knew poverty far deeper and more widespread than we see today. A young preacher’s cause
was just gaining traction across a land segregated not
only by custom but by law. And yet in that volatile
tinderbox of a time, President Kennedy led with a steady hand, diffusing the most perilous
moment of the Cold War without firing a single
shot and forcing the rights of young black men and women
to study at the university of their choice. Unleashing a corps of young
volunteers as ambassadors for peace in distant corners of the globe. Setting America’s sights on the moon precisely because it was
hard, unwilling to consider the possibility that we
might not win the space race because he had an unwavering
faith in the character of the people that he led:
resilient, optimistic, innovative, and courageous. It’s worth remembering this, the times in which
President Kennedy led us, because for many Americans
I know that this feels like an uncertain and even perilous time. The forces of globalization and technology have upended many of our
established assumptions about the economy. They’ve provided great opportunity, but also great inequality and uncertainty for far too many. Our politics remains filled
with division and discord, and everywhere we see the risk
of falling into the refuge of tribe and clan and anger at those who don’t look like us or have the same surnames
or pray the way we do. And at such moments, courage is necessary. At such moments, we need
courage to stand up to hate not just in others but in ourselves. At such moments, we need
the courage to stand up to dogma not just in others but in ourselves. At such moments, we
need courage to believe that together we can tackle big challenges like inequality and climate change. At such moments, it’s necessary
for us to show courage in challenging the status quo
and in fighting the good fight but also show the courage
to listen to one another and seek common ground and
embrace principled compromise. Courage, President Kennedy knew, requires something more than
just the absence of fear. Any fool can be fearless. Courage, true courage,
derives from that sense of who we are, what are our best selves, what are our most important commitments, and to believe that we can dig deep and do hard things for the
enduring benefit of others. And that’s why JFK’s first
inaugural still rings true. That’s why Bobby’s campaign
still means so much. That’s why Teddy’s cause endures and we still love him so much. Because of the tragedies
that befell each of them, sometimes we forget how
fundamentally the story they told us about ourselves changed
the trajectory of America. And that’s often where courage begins, with the story we tell
ourselves about who we are and what’s important and
about our own capacity to make a difference. We live in a time of great
cynicism about our institutions. That’s one of the few things
that Democrats and Republicans can agree on. It’s a cynicism that’s most corrosive when it comes to our
system of self-government, that clouds our history of jagged, sometimes tentative but ultimately forward progress, that impedes our children’s
ability to see in the noisy and often too trivial pursuits of politics the possibility of our
democracy doing big things. Of course, disdain for
elected officials is not new, as many of you in the
room can tell others. 60 years ago President
Kennedy quoted a columnist in Profiles in Courage who had written, people don’t give a damn what the average senator
or congressman says. The reason they don’t
care is that they know what you hear in Congress
is 99% tripe, ignorance, and demagoguery and not to be relied upon. Which is perhaps a little harsh. 99% seems high. (audience laughing) 85? (audience laughing) But President Kennedy also
wrote that the complication of public business and the competition for the public’s attention
have obscured innumerable acts of political courage, large and small, performed almost daily. Innumerable acts of political
courage large and small performed almost daily. And that is true. I have seen it. I’ve witnessed it. I’ve been thinking on this
notion of political courage this weekend, in particular
about some of the men and women who were elected to Congress
the same year I was elected to the White House. Many of them were new to Washington, their entire careers ahead of them. And in that very first term,
they had to take tough vote after tough vote because
we were in crisis. They took votes to save
the financial system and the economy, even when
it was highly unpopular. They took votes to save the auto industry when even in Michigan people
didn’t wanna see bailouts. They took votes to crack
down on abuses on Wall Street despite pressure from lobbyists
and sometimes their donors. And they found themselves in
the midst of a great debate, a debate that had been
going on for decades, a debate that the Kennedy family had participated in and helped lead, a debate about whether a nation as wealthy as the United States of America would finally make
healthcare not a privilege but a right for all Americans. (audience applauding) And there was a reason
why healthcare reform had not been accomplished before. It was hard. It involved a sixth of the economy and all manner of
stakeholders and interests. It was easily subject to
misinformation and fear mongering. And so by the time the vote came up to pass the Affordable Care Act, these freshmen congressmen and women knew that they had to make a choice. That they had a chance to insure millions and prevent untold worry and
suffering and bankruptcy, and even death, but that this same vote would likely cost them their new seats, perhaps end their political careers. And these men and women
did the right thing. They did the hard thing. Theirs was a profile in courage. Because of that vote, 20 million
people got health insurance who didn’t have it before. And most of them, (audience applauding) and most of them did lose their seats, but they were true to what
President Kennedy defined in his book as a congressional
profile in courage. The desire to maintain a
reputation for integrity that is stronger than the
desire to maintain office, the desire to maintain a
reputation for integrity that is stronger than a
desire to maintain office, a conscience, personal standard of ethics, integrity, morality that is
stronger than the pressures of public disapproval
or party disapproval, a faith that the right course would ultimately be vindicated, a faith that overcame
fear of public reprisal. It was a personal sacrifice. But I know, because I’ve
spoken to many of them, that they thought and still
think it was worth it. As everyone here now
knows, this great debate is not settled but continues. And it is my fervent hope
and the hope of millions that regardless of party, such
courage is still possible, that today’s members of
Congress, regardless of party, are willing to look at the
facts and speak the truth even when it contradicts party positions. I hope that current
members of Congress recall that it actually doesn’t
take a lot of courage to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential. But it does require some courage
to champion the vulnerable and the sick and the infirm, those who often have no access to the corridors of power. I hope they understand that courage means not simply doing what
is politically expedient but doing what they believe
deep in their hearts is right. And this kind of courage
is required from all of us. Those of us who consider
ourselves progressives, those of us who are Democrats, we’ve got some soul-searching to do to see what kind of coverage we show. We have our own dogmas. Those of us not in elected office have to show some courage. And we’re prone to bestow the
mantel of courage too easily on the prominent and the
powerful and then too eager to wrap ourselves in cynicism
when they let us down because they weren’t perfect. We lose sight sometimes
of our own obligations, each of ours, all the
quiet acts of courage that unfold around us every
single day, ordinary Americans who give something of
themselves not for personal gain but for the enduring benefit of another. The courage of a single
mom who’s working two jobs to make sure her kid can go to college. The courage of a small business
owner who’s keeping folks on the payroll because he
knows a family relies on it, even if it’s not always
the right thing to do for his bottom line. The courage of somebody who
volunteers to help some kids who need help. When we recognize these acts of courage, we then necessarily recognize
our own responsibility as citizens and as part
of the human family to get involved and to get
engaged and to take a stand, to vote, to pay attention. I’m reminded of a story
that Teddy once told me about his experiences many
years ago when Teddy, Jr., now State Senator Ted Kennedy, Jr., was sleeping after one
of his cancer treatments. And Ted would wander the
halls of the hospital and talk with other parents, keeping vigil over their own children. These parents lived in constant
fear of what might happen if they couldn’t afford
the next treatment. Some calculating in their own minds what they might have to sell
or borrow just to make it for a few more months,
some bargaining with God for whatever they could get. And right there in the quiet of night, working people of modest means and one of the most
powerful men in America shared the same intimate and immediate sense of helplessness. And Ted could, of course,
afford his son’s treatment. But it was that quiet
dignified courage of others to endure the most
frightening thing imaginable and to do what it takes on
behalf of their loved ones that compelled Teddy to make those parents his cause, not out of self-interest but out of a selfless
concern for those who suffer. That’s what the ordinary
courage of everyday people can inspire when you’re paying attention, the quiet sturdy courage
of ordinary people doing the right thing day in and day out. They don’t get attention for it. They don’t seek it. They don’t get awards for it. But that’s what’s defined America. I think of women like my grandmother and so many like her
who worked their way up from a secretarial pool to management and in the process
pushed the glass ceiling just a little bit higher. I think about people like Michelle’s dad who, despite MS, got up
every single morning. Had to wake up an hour
early to button his shirt up and put on his clothes and
take those two canes he used and go to work every
single day to make sure that he was supporting his family, not missing a dance recital
or a basketball game. I think of the troops and the
cops and the first responders that I’ve met who’ve put
themselves at risk for strangers they will never know. Business owners who make
every kind of sacrifice they can to make sure that
their workers have a shot. Workers who take the risk
of starting a new career, retraining at my age. (audience chuckles) Kids in the Peace Corps
working to build bridges of understanding in other nations and to spread the same values that helped bring down an Iron Curtain, banish the scourge of apartheid, expand the boundaries of human freedom. I think of Dreamers who suppress
their fears to keep working and striving in the only country they’ve ever called home. And every American who
stands up for immigrants because they know that their parents or grandparents or great
grandparents were immigrants too, and they know that America is an idea that only grows stronger
with each new person who adopts our common creed. (audience applauding)
I think of, I think of every young activist
who answers the injustices still embedded in our
criminal justice system not with violence, not with despair, but with peaceful protest and analysis and constructive
recommendations for change. I think of the powerless
who crossed a bridge in Selma and discovered they had power. Those who gathered at Stonewall and discovered they had a voice. Those who marched on Washington
because they believed that they, without an army, without great wealth, could somehow change the very fabric of the greatest power on Earth and kept on until they stretched the lofty ideals of our founding to encircle everyone. Every citizen inspired by that history who dips their toes in the
water of active democracy for the first time and
musters up the determination to try and fail and try again, and sometimes fail again
and still try again, knowing their efforts aren’t
always rewarded right away, because they believe in
that upward trajectory of the American story, a story that nobody told better than John F. Kennedy. That very Kennedy-esque idea that America is not the
project of any one person and that each of us can make a difference and all of us ought to try. That quiet sturdy citizenship that I see all across the country
and that I especially see in young people like Jack and Rose and Tatiana, Malia and Sasha, and your kids. I don’t know whether President
Kennedy’s aide and friend, historian Arthur
Schlesinger, Jr., was right when he wrote that
history unfolds in cycles, but I do know that it doesn’t
move in a straight line. I know that the values and
the progress that we cherish are not inevitable, that they are fragile, in need of constant renewal. I’ve said before that I
believe what Dr. King said, that “the arc of the
moral universe is long “but it bends toward justice.” But I’ve also said it
does not bend on its own. It bends because we bend it, because we put our hand on that arch, and we move it in the direction of justice and freedom and equality and kindness and generosity. It doesn’t happen on its own. And so we are constantly
having to make a choice because progress is fragile. And it’s precisely that
fragility, that impermanence, that is a precondition of
the quality of character that we celebrate tonight. If the vitality of our
democracy, if the gains of our long journey to
freedom were assured, none of us would ever
have to be courageous. None of us would’ve ever
have to risk anything to protect them. But it’s in its very precariousness that courage becomes possible
and absolutely necessary. John F. Kennedy knew that our best hope and our most powerful answer
to our doubts and to our fears lies inside each of us, in our willingness to joyfully embrace our
responsibility as citizens, to stay true to our allegiance to our highest and best ideals, to maintain our regard and concern for the poor and the aging
and the marginalized, to put our personal or
party interests aside when duty to our country calls or when conscience demands. That’s the spirit that
has brought America so far and that’s the spirit
that will always carry us to better days. And I take this honor that
you have bestowed on me here tonight as a reminder
that, even out of office, I must do all that I can to
advance the spirit of service that John F. Kennedy represents. Thank you all very much. May God bless you. (audience applauding) May he bless these
United States of America.

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