When George W. Bush presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier this month to three former officials intimately involved in his Iraq policy, the news was greeted by his political opponents with all the suave grace characteristic of Howard Dean and MoveOn.org. One could almost be forgiven for thinking the awards had been bestowed upon the three as part of a clever Karl Rove plot to keep the administration’s opponents in a permanent state of self-discrediting hyperventilation. On the other hand, Mr. Bush would probably provoke the same state of excitation merely by reading the first three names in the DC phone book.
The honorees were George Tenet, former director of central intelligence; L. Paul Bremer, occupation administrator in post-Saddam Iraq; and Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander responsible for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. To their many detractors, that would be George “Slam Dunk” Tenet, who missed the warning signals of September 11 and got the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq all wrong, abetting the Bush administration’s rush to war; Paul “Now you tell us” Bremer, who thoroughly bungled postwar Iraq by such decisions as the dismantling of the Ba’athist army and then failed to speak up on what needed to be done until it was too late; and Tommy “I don’t do windows” Franks, whose appreciation of the requirements of war-planning ends with the fall of the bad guy’s statue.
In response to the attack on the three, some Republicans have responded: Um, er, well, ah. It is as if the grave challenge Iraq presented and continues to present makes it somehow too embarrassing to speak favorably about anyone who had anything to do with it.
Some have also responded by distinguishing among the three: Give Gen. Franks some credit for quickly and efficiently removing a couple of nasty governments by force of arms, say, but Mr. Tenet? Forget it. Likewise, Mr. Bremer. I agree that there is a better case on the merit of performance for the award for Gen. Franks. But to go down this road rather misses the point.
Of course, only a fool or a partisan on the opposite side would hold his tongue on the inadequacies of the performance of these three men — or wag it solely in their praise. Fortunately, Mr. Bush, who is no fool, understands that among his roles is precisely to be the chief partisan of his own side. These are people he selected for positions of responsibility and on whom he relied to help formulate and carry out his policies. The three were tested by circumstances about as extreme as you are likely to run into in public service. Or, if anyone has historical examples of the swift conquest of Afghanistan, the immediate liberalization of a society dominated by murderous thugs, and the anticipation of the biggest threat, previously unknown, of a new century, please drop me a line. And by all accounts, they served honorably. As best they could, they put the public interest first.
Now, here’s the point: These awards are the president’s to bestow. And while he is, indeed, president of (all of) the United States, that does not mean he needs to submit his proposed honorees for vetting to his political opponents. In 2000, Bill Clinton honored Children’s Defense Fund founder and activist Marian Wright Edelman with a Medal of Freedom. A year ago, George W. Bush honored the longtime editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, Robert L. Bartley. It’s probably a safe bet that Mr. Clinton never would have bestowed a medal on Mr. Bartley, nor Mr. Bush on Mrs. Edelman. But aren’t we a little better off for living in a country where both are honored, rather than neither?
It’s up to the president — any president — to understand this. And it’s important for another reason: Republicans will decide who among them has been discredited or disgraced. And Democrats will decide who among Democrats has been discredited. Republicans should not let Democrats decide for them, nor should Democrats let Republicans. This is not to say that neither party will ever judge one of its own unfavorably: They will and do, from Zoe Baird (the original nanny offender) to Bernard Kerik. But neither side should ever cede to the other this moral authority, for the simple reason that charity is not a characteristic of partisan judgments.
Republicans have been better at honoring the service of their senior officials than Democrats. I wish Bill Clinton had spent a little less time in his last weeks in office deciding to pardon fugitive financier Marc Rich and more on getting medals to the scandalously neglected Les Aspin, Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and Madeleine Albright.
By contrast, President Ford gave Donald Rumsfeld a Medal of Freedom in 1977 for what turned out to be Mr. Rumsfeld’s first stint as secretary of defense. If, indeed, it’s now about time for him to go, Mr. Bush should find some other way to honor him.