- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 13, 2009

While presidents have wide latitude to put a stamp on foreign and domestic policy, they less often have the opportunity to present the country with their own model for what counts as personal excellence.

President Obama attempted to do that Wednesday with his selection of 16 recipients for the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. The first honorees of Mr. Obama’s presidency included artists, activists and cultural icons both well known and obscure. Among them were tennis great Billie Jean King, civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery and the ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, one of the president’s political mentors, whose daughter accepted the medal on his behalf in the East Room of the White House.

A handful, including an Irish politician who has angered Jewish groups and a deceased gay rights icon, stirred controversy.

As much as his choices spoke to the accomplishments of the honorees, they also provided a window into the president’s own values, especially in contrast to those selected for the honor by President George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama said the recipients stood for “that most American of beliefs: that our lives are what we make of them.”

The president honored Archbishop Desmond Tutu for his work in ending apartheid in South Africa, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for becoming the first woman on the nation’s highest court, Stephen Hawking for his scientific achievements, and Joe Medicine Crow - High Bird for overcoming an upbringing on a Native American reservation to become a distinguished historian.

The common theme: each recipient overcame boundaries, challenges or outright discrimination and expanded opportunity for others like themselves.

Mr. Obama said they showed that “no barriers of race, gender or physical infirmity can restrain the human spirit, and that the truest test of a person’s life is what we do for one another.”

But some groups said that the president’s decision to honor former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and gay rights icon Harvey Milk ran afoul of the ideals that Mr. Obama said he was promoting.

Pro-Israel and Jewish groups have opposed the decision to award Ms. Robinson because she presided over the 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. The conference featured a debate among the planners of the conference to compare Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, with racism, and featured speeches by delegations that compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Nazi treatment of Jews.

Groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the country’s largest pro-Israel lobby that rarely openly criticizes a sitting president, called on Mr. Obama to denounce Mrs. Robinson’s views on Israel. Other groups that have opposed the decision include the World Jewish Congress and several pro-Israel members of Congress.

Mr. Obama called Mrs. Robinson, who is also the first woman to be elected president of Ireland, “an advocate for the hungry and the hunted.”

Mr. Milk was the first openly gay man elected to political office in California, in 1977, when he became a San Francisco city supervisor. Less than a year later, he was shot and killed by a former fellow supervisor, making him a martyr figure for the gay rights movement.

Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the conservative Family Research Council, called the selection of Mr. Milk “madness.”

“It may mark the first time in history that the nation’s highest civilian award has been granted primarily on the basis of someone’s sex life,” Mr. Sprigg wrote in an article published online Wednesday.

Past recipients represent a tapestry of American achievement. While the White House provides little insight into how the selections are made, and what vetting they undergo, former Bush administration aides said they made a number of calculations before rolling out a list of recipients. Administrations tend towards older recipients, for instance, so they don’t have to contend with a Medal of Freedom recipient later on becoming embroiled in controversy.

The Bush White House anticipated blowback to several of its 81 choices, most notably when he presented the award to retired Gen. Tommy Franks, former CIA Director George Tenet and former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer, in large measure for their involvement in the Iraq war.

Healing political wounds can also be a goal.

Mr. Obama honored recently deceased Republican politician Jack Kemp, who was a professional football player before entering politics.

“Football, he once said, gave him a good sense of perspective about politics. He’d already been booed, cheered, cut, sold and traded. Makes me feel better,” Mr. Obama said, as the East Room audience laughed.

Also selected were Pedro Jose Greer Jr., who helps the homeless access health care; Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win an Oscar; Nancy Goodman Brinker, breast cancer awareness activist; Chita Rivera, actress and dancer; Dr. Janet Davison Rowley, leukemia researcher; and Muhammed Yunus, who helped the poor in Bangladesh.

Eli Lake contributed to this report.

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