‘Profile in Courage:’ Kentuckian Michael Adams honored for protecting election integrity

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

Accepting the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Sunday night, Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams thanked the JFK Library Foundation for incentivizing political courage “because it may be needed now more than ever before.” 

Adams, a Republican who was elected to a second term last fall, was selected for his work to increase voting days in Kentucky, as well as for standing up for free and fair elections despite ire from fellow Republicans and death threats from election deniers. His selection was announced in May; the ceremony took place Sunday night at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. 

“Today’s politics penalizes the workhorse and rewards the showhorse,” Adams told the gala gathering. “It prizes provocateurs and punishes problem solvers, and now that social media have made everybody an expert in everything, we risk dissent from the Madisonian model of democracy, in which we elect our best as trustees to run our government on our behalf, to a tainted model, in which independent and judicious thought in our leaders is not encouraged. Indeed, leadership is out and followership is in.” 

In his remarks to the crowd, Adams reflected on steps he took during his first term to maintain election access and integrity in 2020 — when a heated presidential race was on the ballot and before there was a vaccine for the highly contagious coronavirus that held the world in the grip of a pandemic. Adams worked with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear to protect Kentuckians’ access to the ballot safely. That included expanded absentee voting and early voting days, the latter being something that Adams continues to support heading into this year’s presidential election. 

Jack Schlossberg, member of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award committee, left, presents Secretary of State Michael Adams with the award. (Screenshot via JFK Library Foundation livestream)

Jack Schlossberg, the only grandson of the former president and member of the award committee, said that Adams’ alliance with Beshear “wasn’t easy, and he took a lot of heat for it.” Adams’ respect for the 2020 presidential election results also made him a political target within his own party. 

“Adams, his staff — even his family — received death threats and physical confrontations, and members of his own party recruited two challengers to unseat him in a primary,” Schlossberg said. “It got so bleak that in 2020, Adams believed his political career might be over. He responded with optimism and courage. His strategy was simple, but not easy.” 

Schlossberg added that many of those pandemic-era voting changes later became permanent in Kentucky. Adams was the top vote-getter among constitutional candidates during the 2023 general election, winning 118 of 120 counties. 

Adams was given the award not for opposing fellow Republicans, Schlossberg said, but “because he put himself, his family and his career on the line to protect the right to vote.”

“We honor his political courage tonight by casting our ballots in November,” Schlossberg said. “His sacrifice is a great reminder to all of us: the right to vote is sacred. Don’t throw it away by staying home or voting for someone who can’t win.”

Created by members of the Kennedy family in 1989, the award honors public officials who demonstrate leadership in the spirit of “Profiles in Courage,” the president’s book about eight U.S. senators who took unpopular stands despite opposition from constituents and their political parties. 

Adams said Kennedy’s observations about the pressure politicians face in that book, published in 1956, are “timeless,” and that courage by all public servants, including secretaries of state, county clerks, health officials, school board members and more, is needed today. 

“There are others who have risked far more than I,” Adams said. “I would like to think I’ve been given this award to celebrate a happy ending, and to mark an example others should follow in order to keep the American experiment in self-government alive.”

Previous winners of the JFK Profile in Courage Award include U.S. presidents and members of Congress. 

President John F. Kennedy (JFK Presidential Library and Museum)

While John F. Kennedy, then a Democratic U.S. senator from Massachusetts, took a leave of absence from Congress to recover from back surgery, he revisited a topic he had longtime interest in — political courage. That resulted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” which focuses on senators from across the political spectrum overcoming opposition for the greater good. 

The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award recognizes modern-day public officials who exhibit the spirit that Kennedy admired. More than 80 recipients have been awarded the prize, including heads of state, governors, mayors and members of Congress. 

Previous honorees include: 

  • Republican President George H.W. Bush 
  • Democratic President Barack Obama
  • Republican President Gerald Ford
  • U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah 
  • Former Speaker of the House U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California
  • Former U.S. Sen. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona
  • Former U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia
  • Former U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona

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