2010 brought with it many intriguing moments and milestones in our national political history, but one that stands out in my mind to this day is that of the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Rarely has an event so clearly tested the temerity of our public officials, so clearly proposed a challenge to the strength of our core ideals as a country. When a variety of politicians capitulated to the fluctuations of public opinion and polls, to the “easy” rather than to the “right,” Mayor Mike Bloomberg stood up. He recognized what Dr. King described – and Senator Ted Kennedy often invoked – “the fierce urgency of now.”
In remarks delivered after the New York City Landmarks Commission helped the mosque to clear a vital technical hurdle, Mayor Bloomberg asked all New Yorkers to summon the kind of courage President Kennedy described in his seminal book on the subject: “a man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.”
One excerpt is worth inserting here, as it seems to acknowledge that the greatest source of inspiration and instruction to Americans may in fact be our own history; a history that – though not without flaws – is deeply rooted in the ideals of republican democracy. Bloomberg said:
We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That’s life. And it’s part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001.
On that day, 3,000 people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn’t want us to enjoy the freedoms to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams, and to live our own lives. Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that even here — in a city that is rooted in Dutch tolerance — was hard-won over many years.
The hairs of my neck still stand on edge every time I read or watch this speech. I think this is partly because Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks join a rich tradition of political speeches in this country. Speeches that ask us to acknowledge a vision larger than ourselves and to have the courage to work to achieve that vision, even when faced with impossible odds. Speeches that ask us to have the kind of “moral courage” Robert Kennedy once described, Ted Kennedy long embodied, and John Kennedy first endowed.
It gives me great pleasure to nominate Mayor Bloomberg for this award. His public service is distinguished, but his political courage is once-in-a-lifetime.
You can second my nomination – or nominate someone else – on the John F. Kennedy Library’s webpage.