Skip to comments.Defining Medals Down (The Presidential Medal of Freedom ain't what it used to be)
Posted on 11/16/2005 1:40:15 PM PST by RWR8189
|THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM, "the nation's highest civilian award," was established by Harry Truman in 1945 to recognize notable service in World War II. Eighteen years later, John F. Kennedy, prompted by White House aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan, decided to revive the moribund honor by awarding it to people of distinction--and not just U.S. citizens--who might otherwise remain unrecognized by the American government.
The first class of recipients was supposed to get its medals on the Fourth of July, 1963, but for one reason or another, the White House ceremony was repeatedly postponed. By the time it was finally scheduled to occur, on December 6, Kennedy had been assassinated, and the nation was still officially in mourning. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, however, recognized an opportunity. In a solemn, not to say tragic, atmosphere, LBJ went ahead with the event, bestowing the medal on a long, distinguished, gray-haired line of worthies.
"The president of the United States,'' declared the master of ceremonies, Under Secretary of State George Ball, "is expressing the appreciation of a great nation for the extraordinary achievements of a remarkable group of men and women, achievements spanning a wide spectrum of human endeavor: the arts, science, diplomacy, government, the humanities, the law, and philanthropy."
Johnson had decided to award the medal posthumously to Kennedy, and while the citation was being read, his widow sat nearby, hidden from view by a curtain in the State Dining Room. When the medal was handed to Kennedy's brother, Robert, Jacqueline Kennedy stood up and left the White House, not to return for years.
I have a theory about the 216-year-old American republic, which suggests that human nature is such that we have gradually developed certain social institutions any history-minded European would recognize: elite schools and universities, dynastic political families, orders of chivalry, and the like. When the Medal of Freedom was revived 42 years ago, it was celebrated as an American equivalent of the British civil honors list: an award, in the gift of our democratic monarch, for services to the state--loosely defined, of course.
No one surveying the 1963 list would argue against any of the recipients. It included the recently deceased Pope John XXIII, America's preeminent man of letters (Edmund Wilson), brilliant musicians (Pablo Casals, Marian Anderson, Rudolf Serkin), writers (Thornton Wilder, E.B. White), artists (Andrew Wyeth, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Edward Steichen), educators (James Conant, Alexander Meiklejohn), scientists (John Enders, Edwin Land), statesmen of the law (Felix Frankfurter), and statesmen (John McCloy, Jean Monnet, Robert Lovett, Ralph Bunche, Herbert Lehman).
Compare that particular crowd, however, with the happy recipients last week in the White House. There were Carol Burnett, Jack Nicklaus, Paul Harvey, Muhammad Ali, Andy Griffith, Frank Robinson, and Aretha Franklin. All delightful people, of course, and accomplished in their way; but in the same category as Edmund Wilson, Rudolf Serkin, and Felix Frankfurter?
To be sure, there were a handful of plausible honorees this year: Robert Conquest, the great historian of the Soviet Union, Alan Greenspan, retiring chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, the men who designed the software code for transmitting data on the Internet. But mixed as they were with the sheriff of Mayberry and the manager of the Washington Nationals, there is no escaping the fact that honors inflation has affected the value of the Medal of Freedom.
It's difficult to identify the turning point, but an alphabetical list of recipients provides a clue: There we find NASCAR king Richard Petty (1992) between the ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson (1980) and writer/editor Norman Podhoretz (2004). In recent decades may be found Louis L'Amour (1984), Walter Cronkite (1981), Mr. Rogers (2002), Peggy Charren (1995), Lucille Ball (1989), Frank Sinatra (1985), and Dave Thomas of Wendy's (2003).
Of course, as with any prize sweepstakes, there are interesting lapses. As far as the presidents of the United States have been concerned, Carl Sandburg (1964) was an extraordinary achiever in poetry, but W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, and James Merrill were not. Dorothy Height (1994) is a remarkable figure in the civil rights movement, but Bayard Rustin didn't make the cut. Herblock (1994) was an artist of whom a great nation can be proud, but not Robert Motherwell. The endeavors of novelist James A. Michener (1977) were worthy of recognition, but not those of John Updike.
Consider the list chronologically, and a pattern emerges. Instead of rare recognition presented at the end of a distinguished career, the Presidential Medal of Freedom has become a routine award--a White House gold watch, a secular knighthood--for retiring politicians, senior military officers, ex-cabinet members, personalities in the news, and popular entertainers. Every president and first lady between the Kennedys and the George H.W. Bushes have won the medal, and this year Gen. Richard Myers, former Rep. G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery, and the hotelier whose saga inspired Hotel Rwanda joined the ranks of Gen. John Vessey (1992), Sen. Mike Mansfield (1989), and Joan Ganz Cooney (1995) of the Children's Television Workshop.
Perhaps, as our republic evolves, we would be wise to adopt the British system of graduated honors: certain awards for civil servants, valiant policemen, and champion cricketers, more exalted distinctions for eminent novelists and prime ministers. In that way Robert Conquest wouldn't have to make small talk at the White House with Carol Burnett. Yet even in Conquest's Britain, which has the benefit of experience, the system has been (shall we say) distorted, too--as Ringo Starr, MBE, and Sir Elton John can attest.
Philip Terzian is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.
I wouldn't be surprised if Hillary gave one to George Soros.
I don't agree that Herblock deserved the award. His cartoons are filled with ideologically motivated spite and hatred.
But there's no question that our whole society has been dumbed down, and that pop culture has taken over what used to be ruled by high culture. As far as the White House is concerned, clinton was more responsible for this change than anyone else.
She will... for a price.
I recognize that commenting on this thread is entirely a subjective matter of opinion, as a sweeping statement (yes, at times they are appropriate) I can flat out state that any "prestigious" award, when recipients include sports figures and/or actors, is instantly cheapened beyond redemption.
I wouldn't count Richard Petty among those other "entertainment" folks, either, since Petty probably has more integrity than 99% of the political leaders who have received this award. Besides -- a Presidential award the least we could do for a guy whose nickname is "The King." LOL.
It is articles like this, sneering at awards to Richard Petty and Jack Nicklaus over popularly obscure writers and historians, that got the label 'elitist' to stick so easily to the Weekly Standard. I'm not saying they're more deserving than those JFK tapped, but geez, what makes them so much less?
A better question, and a subject this doofus won't address, because WS is a rag: when did America decide that awards were so damn important that the Prez should be wasting his time giving them out to CIVILIANS?
When a Rat was running the country, of course. And we all fall in line debating about WHO should get it, when the better question is WHY the government should take your money and mine and pay public servants who arrange for these folks to get a shiny medal and lunch at the WH. I dunno about you, but I could use the money, instead of them giving Alan Greenspan more shit for his ego wall.
He doesn't even note that the medal was given to the draft dodger, muslim agitator, and ex-con Mohammed Ali who declared himself a man of peace while bashing peoples brains out in the boxing ring? I thought that was what this was going to be about. Sick. Stupid little gew-gaw. Hope it's not made of real gold, and if it is that we the people didn't get fleeced for that garbage too.