I was touched this week to read that a committee of notable political and civil society leaders, working on behalf of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, had honored former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords with that institution’s Profiles in Courage award on May 5. The honor is annually given to an individual who embodies the sort of mettle chronicled in the Pulitzer Prize winning volume of essays by that title, which highlighted the difficult decisions taken by eight senators who risked their political careers by taking unpopular principled positions.
Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the slain president, bestowed the prize at a small ceremony at the Library. Ms. Kennedy, who was not quite 6 years old when her father was assassinated, made clear that the awards committee chose Ms. Giffords for the courageous example she has set as she has sought doggedly to recover from the nearly fatal wounds she received from a would-be assassin in 2011, and for her continuing work meanwhile to curtail gun violence in the United States. As she presented the award, a sterling silver and crystal lantern meant to symbolize hope, Ms. Kennedy observed:
Our family is still suffering the heartbreak caused by gun violence. No one should have to lose a husband, a wife, a father, a child to senseless murder. But as our honoree has shown, out of that pain and tragedy, we must find the strength to carry on, to give meaning to our lives, and to build a more just and peaceful world. Gabrielle Giffords has turned a personal nightmare into a movement for political change. Her work is saving lives and sparing countless families from the pain and loss caused by gun violence.
I vividly recall how powerful I found Profiles in Courage as a youngster. I remember, too, watching in class a series of well-crafted films produced for television that both enthralled me and brought the book’s pages to light. They provided a portrait of both the paradoxes and possibility of representative governance that I found intense and hopeful, even as a child. The book revealed profoundly how difficult democratic self-governance can be to attain in light of the innate frailties of humankind, while also highlighting the possibility of the freedom it may assure.
Ms. Giffords, still working to recover from her injuries and speaking in the shadow of the Boston Marathon bombing and the Senate’s failure to pass legislation requiring additional background checks for those purchasing guns, said little at the ceremony in her honor, but her brief remarks were nonetheless powerful:
I believe we all have courage inside, I wish there was more courage in Congress. These two years since I was shot have been hard. But I want to make the world a better place. More than ever.
How refreshing to learn of a leader, touched forever and deeply by a senseless act of violence, who can still articulate an abiding hope for the future and for her nation, and who is willing to work peaceably and honorably to secure it. Ms. Giffords stands in stimulating contrast to the paranoiac bombast increasingly typical of a share of our nation’s would-be leaders, and to the self-consciously cynical attempts of many others to manipulate the electorate by any means necessary to gain personal or organizational advantage and power. Against the daily posturing of these who seek short-term partisan and political advantage at any social cost, we need to be reminded that there are many who stand with Giffords and refuse the powerful allure of an easy cynicism in favor of the more difficult path of resilient courage. Amidst the onslaught of the often Kafkaesque empty partisan positioning, we need to remember that there is always reason for hope that some leaders will emerge who can and will act with nobility, bravery and selfless grace on behalf of the possibility of freedom and self-governance.