US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi took a break from sparring with President Trump and quieting disputes within her own party Sunday evening to accept a Profile in Courage Award during a black-tie event at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
The California congresswoman was honored for her work in passing the 2010 Affordable Care Act, according to organizers, and for leading Democrats last year to regain control of the US House of Representatives and elect “the most diverse Congress in our nation’s history.”
As Pelosi arrived on the red carpet with her family late Sunday afternoon, she told reporters she was “speechless” about the honor.
“When they called me, they said, ‘You can’t say anything until we make the announcement.’
I said, ‘Don’t worry about me telling anybody. I’m totally at a loss for words,’ ’’ Pelosi said.
Prior to the ceremony, a string quartet played anthems of female empowerment that included Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the 35th president and a former US ambassador to Japan, and her son, Jack Schlossberg, introduced Pelosi and presented the award, with Kennedy calling Pelosi “the most consequential woman in American political history.”
“She has consistently acted in service of our highest principles and our most vulnerable citizens,” Kennedy said.
As Pelosi addressed the crowd, she reflected on John F. Kennedy’s legacy and Caroline Kennedy’s service as ambassador, saying she accepted the honor “with a full and humble heart.”
She also jokingly praised the award selection committee: “I think they did a good job!” she said.
“When I was a girl in Catholic school in Baltimore, the Irish nuns from Boston would always sing the praises of the Kennedy family,” she recalled, going on to describe meeting then-Senator Kennedy when he came to Baltimore and met with her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., then the city’s mayor.
“Everyone there was dazzled by his brilliance,” she said of JFK.
Pelosi said that courage is a constant in the American story, from the first immigrants who ventured to the New World, to the founding fathers who threw off the yoke of English oppression, “to my colleagues in the Congress who had the courage to elect me the first woman speaker of the House.”
“Courage is in the DNA of America, courage and the optimism and hope that go with it,” she said.
She recalled working with the late Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy to pass the Affordable Care Act, against all odds, and said she shares the award “with all of my colleagues — Democratic colleagues — in the House. . . . They were all profiles in courage.”
The award, named for John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1957 book, has been given out since 1990 to politicians and public servants working for the public good and has become one of the most prestigious commendations in politics.
Past recipients include the peacemakers of Northern Ireland; public servants who responded to the terror attacks of Sept 11, 2001; and political figures such as Senators John Lewis, John McCain, Russell Feingold, and Ted Kennedy; and former presidents Barack Obama, George H.W. Bush, and Gerald Ford.
As they arrived on the red carpet Sunday afternoon, colleagues described Pelosi as a shrewd strategist and effective legislator who always keeps her focus on what she says are her top three priorities: “Children, children, children.”
“That’s how she leads, and we need that moral clarity, and she brings it,” said Congresswoman Katherine Clark, a Melrose Democrat.
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a Boston Democrat, said that as a newcomer to the chamber, she values Pelosi’s counsel.
“She embodies a unique combination of grit and grace, and she’s one of the greatest strategists and tacticians of our political life . . . in modern times, and we owe her for the passage of the Affordable Care Act,” Pressley said.
Among the many other politicians arriving were former Secretary of State John Kerry, US Senator Edward J. Markey, and Massachusetts House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has been quiet publicly since he was charged in February with soliciting prostitution in a Florida day spa, also walked the red carpet but declined to speak to reporters.
On the red carpet, Patrick J. Kennedy, the son of Ted Kennedy and himself a former Rhode Island congressman, nodded toward the nearby Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate.
“Not far from here is the institute named for my late father, who people said was the ‘lion of the Senate.’ Nancy Pelosi is the lioness of the House,” he said. “She’s the one who gets everything done, and in a crucial stage in the [Affordable Care Act], when not many people thought that it would pass, Nancy Pelosi made it pass. And it was her political acumen and leadership qualities that delivered the ACA.”
Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the late senator’s widow, called Pelosi “an amazing leader for our time, for all time, really.
“When I think of what she did for health care — the cause of my husband’s life — she was a phenomenal leader,” Reggie Kennedy continued.
“I really think that she was the person who pushed it over the goal line in such an important way,” she said.