May 24 1999
Today is different. I am genuinely moved by this award, and humbled by the high ideal it is intended to honor, and the excellent company that I keep as one half of the first shared Profile in Courage Award. In his last campaign, Russ Feingold gave to this nation an inspiring example of civic courage. It is one of the great privileges of my political career to be his partner in this, as yet unfinished, endeavor, and whatever comes of our effort, his friendship has made it a rewarding experience.
The cause of campaign finance reform serves two important purposes for me. One, which I will address in a moment, should be the common concern of all public officials - our honor. The other is the progress of conservative political reforms.
I am a conservative, and I believe it is a very healthy thing for Americans to refrain from expecting too much from their government. Self-reliance is the ethic that made America great, not consigning personal responsibilities to the state.
I like to think that we conservatives practice the self-reliance that we so devoutly believe to be a noble public virtue, and rely on our ideals and our integrity to enlist a majority to our cause, rather than subordinate those ideals to the imperatives of fundraising.
I would hope that we would fight for those ideals as hard and as effectively as Ted Kennedy fights for his. I believe we need to reform government, make it smaller and less removed in style and substance from the people it serves. I believe we should reform our tax code. I believe we need to save Social Security and Medicare. I believe we need to reform liability laws. I believe we should genuinely deregulate the telecommunications industry. Indeed, there is virtually no end to the reforms I feel are important to the country, and which should be priorities on any conservative's agenda.
But we will never achieve these reforms until we first reform the way we finance our political campaigns. As long as the influence of special interests dominates political campaigns, it will dominate legislation as well. Until we abolish soft money, Americans will never have a government that works as hard for them as it does for the special interests. That is a sad, but undeniable fact of contemporary politics.
During hearings for the 1996 Telecommunications Act, every company affected by the legislation had purchased a seat at the table with soft money. Consequently, the bill attempted to protect them all, a goal that is obviously incompatible with competition. Consumers, who only give us their votes, had no seat at the table, and the lower prices that competition produces never materialized.
We can never agree on HMO reform because agreement is impossible when trial lawyers give lots of money to Democrats and insurance companies give lots of money to Republicans.
In truth, we are all shortchanged by soft money, liberal and conservative alike. All of our ideals are sacrificed. We are all corrupted. I know that is a harsh judgment. But it is, I am sorry to say, a fair judgment. And even if our own consciences were to allow us to hide from it, the people we are privileged to serve will not.
Most Americans believe that we all conspire to hold on to every political advantage we have, lest we jeopardize our incumbency by a single lost vote. Most Americans believe we would let this nation pay any price, bear any burden to ensure the success of our personal ambitions - no matter how injurious the effect might be to the national interest. And who can blame them. As long as the wealthiest Americans and the richest organized interests can make six figure donations to political parties and gain the special access to power such generosity confers on the donor, most Americans will dismiss the most virtuous politician's claim of patriotism.
In John Kennedy's memorable phrase, "without belittling the courage with which men have died, we should not forget the courage with which men have lived." I've seen more than my fair share of both kinds. And I could not forget them if I wanted to.
I wish I could pretend to you and to myself that my efforts were comparable to the courage with which I have seen many good men live and die, and whose inspiration has given me heart in difficult times. But I cannot. For my actions are less a profile in courage than a profile in shame.
When I was a young man, and all glory was self-glory, I responded aggressively and often irresponsibly to anyone who questioned my honor. I still remember how zealously a boy would attend the needs of his self-respect. But as I grew older, and the challenges to my self-respect became more varied and difficult, I was surprised to discover that while my sense of honor had matured, its defense mattered even more to me than it did when I believed that honor was such a frail thing that any empty challenge could threaten it.
The courage of the living and the dead taught me that. They taught me to dread dishonor above all other injuries. They taught me to be afraid of shame.
I believe public service is an honorable profession. I believed that when I entered the Naval Academy at seventeen and I believe it still. I am an old man now, and I should be content with a life that has been more blessed than I deserve. But the people whom I serve believe that the means by which I came to office corrupt me. That shames me. Their contempt is a stain upon my honor, and I cannot live with it.
That is why I support the cause that you distinguish with this award. I thank you for it, and pledge that I will try to remain worthy of the honor.