Politics & Policy

A Tasty Presidential Perk

Medals of Freedom

Just as it’s good to be king, it’s good to be president. The perks are many: and not just Air Force One, the White House pastry chef, and the Marine Band. (The president used to have a yacht — the Sequoia — but Jimmy Carter sold that, in a display of non-ostentatiousness.) The president has the privilege of awarding Medals of Free­dom — Presidential Medals of Freedom, they’re called. This must be one of the most rewarding parts of the job. And a president’s choices reveal a fair amount about the man.

In the first week of November, Pres­ident Bush completed another round of Medals of Freedom. Among his choices was Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet — who was not able to receive his medal in person. He is in a Cuban prison, and long has been. Biscet is one of the bravest and most inspiring of the Cuban political prisoners. He does not get much attention in the world press. But George W. Bush knows who he is: and he sent a message that was, indeed, heard. It lifted Cubans, at home and in exile, and irritated the Cuban dictatorship.

It also irritated National Public Radio — America’s own — which was incredibly sniffy toward this medal for Biscet. NPR gave the impression of considering Bush’s action rude — even illegitimate. Among the sniffy remarks: “The dissident’s views are . . . closely aligned with the Bush administration’s position — which is not the cri­teria [sic] for being recognized.”

Ignoring NPR’s respect for English, what about its respect for facts? In fact, the president can give the Medal of Free­dom to whomever he wishes, for what­ever reason he wishes. The medal was established in 1945 by President Truman, who wanted a way to honor the contributions of American civilians in World War II. (The Congressional Medal of Honor took care of military heroes.) Some 20 years later, President Kennedy revised and expanded the medal: to give it to those who have made contributions “in all forms of en­deavor that are touched with the public interests.”

The criteria are very broad. The president can give it to foreigners, and he can give it to the deceased. An individual can receive more than one Medal of Freedom — Ells­worth Bunker and Colin Powell have received two. Theoretically, the president can give it to his pet teacher, or his pet beagle. The Medal of Freedom — America’s highest civilian honor — is entirely in the president’s gift, as the British would say.

Speaking of the British: Some of us have long been queasy about Presidential Medals of Freedom, because they smack of an honors list (whereby you get “Sir Fred” and so on). They are an honors list. And that is not very republican — baubles from the government, official imprimaturs, a roll of Best People. On the same grounds, we object to America’s having a “poet laureate” — an official poet — which it has since 1985. That is truly shudder-making. But as long as we’re going to have these Medals of Freedom, we want our guys — our fav­orites — to get them, naturally.

President Kennedy never got to award his medals — that is, never got to do so in person. He announced his choices on the Fourth of July 1963, but the ceremony was not to take place until December 6. Lyndon Johnson made the awards in JFK’s stead — and awarded one of his own to the fallen president. Among Kennedy’s choices were weighty men of government: McCloy, Frankfurter, Lovett. But he also included a clutch of musicians: Marian Anderson, Pablo Casals, Rudolf Serkin. And a clutch of writers: E. B. White, Edmund Wilson, Thornton Wilder.

All this is immediately recognizable as Kennedyesque.

In later years, LBJ made many sensible awards — you might call them consensus awards — including ones to Helen Keller and Walt Disney, who, in official documents, is called “Walter Disney,” which is like saying “John Carson.”

Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 20, 1969; three weeks later, President Nixon hung a Medal of Freedom around his neck. I also note that, the next year, he conferred the medal on Maestro Eugene Ormandy. The story is told — I can’t confirm — that two members of his Phil­adelphia Orchestra once refused to stand for the national anthem, in protest of the Vietnam War. Ormandy was minded to fire them, but was dissuaded. (A Jew from Hungary, Ormandy was not averse to fight­ing dictatorships.) (And, where or­chestras were concerned, he favored benevolent ones.)

Gerald Ford had a brief presidency, of course, but he got in a decent number of medals. He did Arthur Rubinstein, Jesse Owens, and Martha Graham. And, on his way out the door — January 1977 — he did Irving Berlin, Omar Bradley, Joe DiMaggio, and the Durants, among others. Those others included Lady Bird Johnson, a gracious choice. And they also included his secretaries of state and defense: Kissinger and Rumsfeld. (Separate ceremonies, for those two rivals.)

President Carter gave the medal to some liberal lions: Roger Baldwin, Rachel Carson, Arthur Goldberg, Margaret Mead. He also honored some southern writers — e.g., Eudora Welty — and his military mentor, Hyman Rickover. And, on his way out the door — January 1981 — he decorated just about his entire team: Brown, Zbig, Muskie, Warren Christopher, Andy Young, Bob Strauss. Also Walter Cronkite.

You might say that Cronkite’s services to the Democratic party were greater than those of anyone on Carter’s team, including the president himself.

Sharansky and friend (Matthew Cavanaugh/EPA/Corbis)

In his eight years, President Reagan gave the medal to a big number of people, and to a tremendous diversity of them. He was criticized for favoring Hollywood “pals” — who were also America’s pals: Cagney, Sinatra, Stewart (Jimmy, not Martha). He gave the medal to one of his favorite writers, Louis L’Amour — intellectuals and would-be intellectuals gagged at this. He honored musicians: not just Sinatra, but Horowitz and Rostropovich, two escapees from Soviet Russia. Also Meredith Willson, of Iowa, the creator of The Music Man. And, perhaps surprisingly, Reagan honored two men of the ballet: George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. Could have been the influence of his dancer son Ron.

As was only right, Reagan nodded to a couple of liberal heroes: the Democrat Eunice Kennedy Shriver; the Republican Jacob Javits. No one could object. But great objection was made when Reagan honored the heroes of anti-Communism: Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Clare Boothe Luce, Sidney Hook, Leo Cherne, and more. This happened while the Cold War was still hot. Reagan was being “ideological” and “needlessly pro­vocative,” to use then-current phrases. And he was definitely showing where his heart lay.

In maybe his nerviest medal of all, Reagan paid tribute to Judge Kaufman, who, in a long and challenging career, had sentenced the Rosenbergs.

President Bush the Elder honored two foreign heroes — Walesa and Thatcher — and, one day in July 1991, his Persian Gulf team: Schwarzkopf, Powell, Baker, Cheney, and Scowcroft. Later that year, he bestowed the medal on William F. Buckley Jr. (whose co-recipients that day included Friedrich von Hayek, Vernon Walters, and Tip O’Neill).

Bill Clinton took care of many liberal lions, to be sure: Justice Brennan, Senator Fulbright, Cesar Chavez, Joe Rauh (another labor leader), George McGovern, John Kenneth Galbraith, Herb Block (the cartoonist), Marian Wright Edelman, Jesse Jackson. That last was particularly hard for some of us to swallow. But he also honored Republicans. In 1994, he gave a medal to Bob Michel, the House minority leader who was retiring, surpassed by Newt Gingrich & Co. We might snicker that Michel was the Democrats’ kind of Re­publican.

And, in 1997, Clinton honored Bob Dole, whom he had beaten the year before. We might say that it’s easy to be gracious toward a man you have vanquished — and we’d be right. But this was still a commendable act.

Of the current president’s 70-some awards, the most controversial took place on December 14, 2004: He conferred medals on Tommy Franks, George Tenet, and Paul Bremer. Many people — including the editors of National Review — said that these awards were undeserved, considering failures in Iraq and elsewhere. Others said that these were decent men who had done their best in trying circumstances. Both claims could be true: that the awards were undeserved, and that the men had done their best.

Bush has honored athletes: baseball’s Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson; golf’s Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. (He has not done Tiger Woods, who is perhaps too young. Although LBJ gave Leontyne Price the Medal of Freedom when she was in her mid-30s.) Bush selected Paul Rusesabagina, a favorite of his, a symbol of resistance to Rwandan genocide. He also honored a mighty liberal lion, or lioness: Katharine Graham.

Most strikingly, however, he has given — delighted in giving — Medals of Freedom to thinkers and writers he especially admires: A conspicuous example is Natan Sharansky. (“If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy,” he once said, “read Natan Sharansky’s book” — referring to The Case for Dem­ocracy.) He has also draped medals around Paul Johnson, Norman Podhoretz, Robert Conquest, Irving Kristol, and James Q. Wilson. He is a great fan of Mark Steyn, too: Might he do the youthful Steyn before his term is out?

We all have our candidates for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. If he had been confirmed, Robert Bork would be in his 20th year on the Supreme Court. It’s not just that he deserves the medal — he is almost owed one.

As long as the medal exists, probably, liberal presidents will look after their own kind, and conservative presidents will do the same. They will also remember the opposition, mindful that they’re president of all Americans. And there will always be the consensus choices, the mom-and-apple-pie choices: your Archibald Mac­Leishes, your Hank Aarons, your Mother Teresas (although surely there were some who squawked about those).

In awarding these medals — lovely objects, by the way — a president indicates what he values. He does this in a hundred other ways, too. And if you don’t like what the incumbent is doing — well, another election is never far off.


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