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White House

The Meaning of a Medal

President George W. Bush honors Natan Sharansky with the Medal of Freedom on December 15, 2006. (Larry Downing / Reuters)

Donald Trump has given the Presidential Medal of Freedom to his two most ardent backers in Congress, arguably: Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) and Jim Jordan (R., Ohio). As I wrote in a 2007 piece about the medal, “a president’s choices reveal a fair amount about the man.”

The occasion of my piece was a particular choice by George W. Bush. He gave the Medal of Freedom to Dr. Óscar Elías Biscet, in absentia. Biscet was a political prisoner in Cuba. In honoring Biscet, Bush was spotlighting the cause of Cuban human rights, and increasing the chances that Biscet would stay alive.

In the summer of 2016, Bush was able to hand Biscet the medal in person.

Let me excerpt my 2007 piece a bit:

Bush has honored athletes: baseball’s Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson; golf’s Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. . . . Bush selected Paul Rusesabagina, a favorite of his, a symbol of resistance to Rwandan genocide. . . .

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.

A bit more:

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.

Trump, in his last days as president, is honoring Nunes and Jordan. Bush, too, awarded Medals of Freedom in his last days as president — to three fellow leaders he regarded as particularly meritorious: Tony Blair of Britain; John Howard of Australia; and Álvaro Uribe of Colombia.

In 2016, I interviewed Uribe in Bogotá, and included the following in my write-up:

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.

In 2019, I sat down with Natan Sharansky in Jerusalem.

“Where is it?” I ask. At home, says Sharansky. Recently, there was a break-in at the house, and the medal was not taken. Neither was the Congressional Gold Medal — which Sharansky received when he came out of the Soviet Union, in 1986.

For the Washington Post, Christopher Buckley has written a graceful, sad piece about the Medals of Freedom to Nunes and Jordan. “The Presidential Medal of Freedom has personal resonance for me,” he begins. “As a White House speechwriter in the early 1980s,” he continues,

I sneaked into the East Room and watched President Ronald Reagan hang the beribboned medal around the neck of James Cagney. . . .

But the real reason I’d gone was to witness Reagan bestow the award posthumously on Whittaker Chambers. Chambers, who died in 1961, had been a mentor to my father, William F. Buckley Jr., and I had a memory of sitting on his lap as a toddler and playing with his pipe.

Speaking of WFB:

One day about 10 years later, my father called. He sounded more excited than I’d ever heard him, like a 12-year-old who’d just learned something amazing and couldn’t wait to tell someone. “But until it’s announced, I have to swear you to absolute secrecy,” he said. By now I was nearly hyperventilating.

“I just had a call from Sununu,” he said, referring to President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff. “They’re giving me the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

Like others of us, Chris is pretty disgusted at the medals to Nunes and Jordan. Have you read the citation for Nunes?

Devin Nunes’ courageous actions helped thwart a plot to take down a sitting United States president. . . .

Congressman Nunes pursued the Russia Hoax at great personal risk and never stopped standing up for the truth. He had the fortitude to take on the media, the FBI, the Intelligence Community, the Democrat Party, foreign spies, and the full power of the Deep State. . . .

Congressman Devin Nunes is a public servant of unmatched talent, unassailable integrity, and unwavering resolve. He uncovered the greatest scandal in American history.

I have a feeling Trump wrote this citation himself — which is as it should be, probably. The medals to Nunes and Jordan are perfectly in keeping with Trump’s character and his presidency. They also symbolize, I believe, the state of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

We have a saying in golf: “Every shot pleases someone.”


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