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Profiles in Courage in Our Time

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AP Photo/Charles Dharapak/Patric Schneider

Americans today are served by a political system that only rarely demonstrates a capacity to compromise for the greater good. The challenges our country faces demand action, yet all too often we encounter a political dialogue that affords no space for those less interested in self-promotion and petty posturing than in looking for common ground.

It is tempting to see the system as broken or to regard the possibility to change it as simply unrealistic. For hope and guidance, therefore, we are well served to look back and remember times when disagreement did not mean disengagement and our leaders put nation above party to provide solutions.

We need not travel to some time in the distant past when legislative battles occurred in candlelit rooms on the floor of the old Senate chamber.

Instead, we can remember 1990 and President George H. W. Bush to find an example of tremendous political courage.

That year the federal budget deficit, after having tripled over the previous decade, stood at $200 billion. Just two years earlier Americans had believed President Bush when he had promised them that there would be no new taxes. But, as is always true when acts of courage appear, a tough choice awaited.

America needed to address the budget deficit. It needed a leader with the courage to govern and the selflessness to forget the next political contest. The nation needed what President Bush gave us.

The 1990 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act established a "pay as you go" system for new entitlement programs and capped annual discretionary spending budgets. In exchange it raised the individual income tax, the top statutory tax rate, the payroll tax, and the rates of excise and fuel taxes, just to name a few.

To be sure, President Bush won no political points for the budget deal. Its passage enraged conservatives and was followed by a drop in his national approval rating. Bush, who enjoyed 80-percent approval at the start of his second year in office, knew the bill would make reelection an uphill battle, but he summoned the courage to govern responsibly at the expense of his own political future.

President Bush acted on a national stage while the world watched, but the capacity for courage is not limited to our nation's highest leaders, or to the 20th century.

In 2011 the debate for immigration reform reached Uvalda, Ga., a town with 592 residents, when Mayor Paul Bridges, a Republican, joined a federal lawsuit to stop the implementation of Georgia's Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011.

Breaking with his party and enraging many of his constituents, Mayor Bridges challenged the law, which outlawed housing and transportation of undocumented persons, limited access for those without legal immigration status to state-sponsored public facilities and services, and expanded state policing powers by authorizing demands for proof of citizenship or legal status from individuals stopped for traffic violations.

Bridges knew that the deportations that would come from the new law would devastate families -- families he knew and had become close to. He knew that whenever he drove his undocumented friends to work or school or an appointment, he would be breaking the law. He knew that the Vidalia onion industry -- the basis of Uvalda's economy -- would lose many of the workers crucial to its success. He also knew that in Uvalda he would stand alone in opposition to the law.

After publicly opposing the law, Mayor Bridges was vilified by many in his community, and he quickly became so unpopular a mayor that he had no choice but to eliminate the possibility of running again for office in Uvalda.

To understand the broad significance and lasting impact of this small-town stand, we leave President John F. Kennedy with the final word:

The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people -- faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment -- faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor, and ultimately recognize right.

George H. W. Bush and Paul Bridges will be honored with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award on Sunday, May 4, 2014.