The Corner

The Meaning of a Medal

Today, I conclude my series on Colombia and its eventful — very eventful — 2016. The last installment is here.

At the end, I discuss the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given to Alvaro Uribe by George W. Bush in January 2009. Uribe was then president of Colombia; Bush was in his final week in office.

On that day, Bush hung the medal around three necks: those of Tony Blair (Britain), John Howard (Australia), and Uribe. He was honoring allies he considered particularly valuable. It was a big statement.

President Obama has a couple of weeks left. Will he take the opportunity of some last-minute bestowals? Probably not. He had a flurry of bestowals in November.

His choices wouldn’t have been my choices. Then again, he was elected president, and I was not. (Yet.) (Just kidding.)

Years ago — in 2007 — I wrote a piece about the Medal of Freedom: “A Tasty Presidential Perk.” This was after Bush gave the medal to Oscar Biscet, in absentia. Biscet is a Cuban physician and democracy leader. At the time, he was a political prisoner. Giving him the Medal of Freedom was a very Bush thing to do. For one thing, it increased the prisoner’s chances of staying alive.

Last summer, Bush was able to present the medal to Biscet in person. The ceremony took place in Dallas.

Back to Colombia. I will quote from my series:

Uribe remembers when Bush told him he would receive the award. It was at a meeting in Peru in November 2008. “Uribe, mi amigo,” said Bush — “necesito que hablemos.” (“Uribe, my friend — we’ve gotta talk.”) He gave Uribe the news. “I almost fainted,” says Uribe.

Uribe keeps the medal at his house near Medellín. “It reminds me of my duties,” he says — “my duties to the rule of law.”

Last month, the Norwegian Nobel Committee presented the Nobel Peace Prize to Juan Manuel Santos, the incumbent president of Colombia. Which is better? The Nobel prize from the Norwegian committee or the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bush?

Uribe said this to me: “For my fellow Colombians who have supported us, and for my family, the Medal of Freedom is the top award.”

We are about to swear in a new president. Whom will Donald Trump honor with his “tasty presidential perk”? He admires people not usually admired by Republican leaders. Vladimir Putin and Julian Assange come to mind. At another level, so do Don King and Joseph “Joey No Socks” Cinque.

Of those, I think King might get the medal. The others, probably not. But it will be in Trump’s “gift,” as the British say. The voters elected him. They wanted him. And the Medal of Freedom is part of the pageant of American life.

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