- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. | After spending two weeks on something akin to a fact-finding mission in depressed New York and depleted Washington, D.C., I found no answers to our nation’s mounting ills. I discovered that there is much to be angry about and unlimited reasons for deep concern. But on the evening after my return, the stars aligned on the outskirts of Los Angeles at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and for a brief moment I felt safe again in America.

On Saturday, my wife and I were privileged to attend the second annual “Celebration of Freedom Gala.” We joined more than 1,000 others who, like us, were electrified to honor 43 of the 98 living Medal of Honor recipients. We also gave our thanks to former first lady Nancy Reagan, war hero and actor Charles Durning, and Gen. David H. Petraeus.

In between courses, we heard rousing patriotic vignettes. One was Steve Amerson’s refreshingly traditional and soaring national anthem. Another was a tear-inducing “Freedom Never Cries” from John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting. Scores of celebrities donning black ties and gowns mingled with our nation’s highest-decorated veterans and active-duty men and women.

Unlike at other awards shows, this star-studded crowd honored something bigger than themselves. I note this without taking anything away from the individual achievements of talented artists who have paid homage to every cause under the sun. But this event was different. The armed forces of the United States have fought and died to protect the freedom of expression that allowed these artists to ply their trade.



Before the program commenced at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, one prominent actor sang the praises of HBO’s “Taking Chance” to a Vietnam-era Medal of Honor recipient. The film is not just another Hollywood attack on the military. Quite the contrary. “I watched it with my son, and we both cried,” the well-known face from film and television told a true hero. “It is deeply respectful and not in the least bit political.”

The same could be said of the dinner. Partisanship was not on the bill as dozens of decorated veterans of unknown partisan stripe stood to accept the audience’s unconditional and rousing appreciation.

Tom Selleck presented the “Lifetime Achievement Award” to a frail yet still elegant Mrs. Reagan, who received the first extended standing ovation of the evening. The 87-year-old former first lady was making her first public appearance since fracturing her pelvis and sacrum in October. She summoned the courage to accept the award in front of a cross-section of people who have grown to admire her during her half-century in Hollywood and in public service.

Gary Sinise, a Presidential Citizens Medal recipient and the event’s co-sponsor, delivered the Bob Hope Award for Excellence in Entertainment to Charles Durning, whose courage and grit during World War II earned him the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. The 86-year-old star of “The Sting” and “Dog Day Afternoon” received a hero’s welcome worthy of both his military and film career.

Mr. Sinise asked attendees to commit themselves to entertaining the troops and singled out one actor/singer who had done so in spades: Connie Stevens, who labored for 40 years for the USO. Miss Stevens, still beautiful and radiant at 70, accepted the extended and deserved standing ovation.

CNN correspondent Alex Quade received an award for her courageous and honest war reporting. One could not help but notice how appreciative the men and women in uniform were for Ms. Quade’s even-handed treatment of America’s warriors on the battlefield.

The evening’s biggest star was Gen. Petraeus, who was received like an A-list star at the height of his career in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Gen. Petraeus took special care to thank his wife, Holly, and to note the special sacrifices of the families of those deployed abroad during war.

Filmmaker Jake Rademacher, whose award-winning documentary comes out this weekend, was also in attendance. “Brothers at War” provides an up-close and intimate vantage of the Iraq war. Rademacher’s brothers, Joseph and Isaac, are real-life heroes and the film’s stars. Those who appreciate the sacrifice of our military and their families, especially during a time of war, will love Rademacher’s faithful and heart-tugging work.

At the event’s conclusion, some of Hollywood’s most famous faces stood around excited to take pictures with men wearing symbols of unspeakable courage around their necks.

The feelings were mutual.

Gen. Petraeus was nothing short of a rock star. The snapshot of the event is the one of movie stars and recording artists trying to take their photo with the man who secured victory in Iraq and ensured that America did not have another Vietnam.

Academy Award-winner Jon Voight stood around until the very end to meet as many living heroes as he could. In between taking snapshots with admirers, actor Robert Davi made sure to introduce his 8-year-old son to as many Medal of Honor recipients as he could find.

One young Marine watched in glee as his friend took a picture with actor, producer and screenwriter Allen Covert. “I can’t believe the guy from ‘Grandma’s Boy’ is here. We memorized that movie,” the Marine said.

A large group gathered to take individual photos with actor Dean Cain. One excited active-duty servicemember declared, “I’m taking a picture with Superman!” Mr. Cain, who is set to go on his second USO mission to Iraq next month, quickly retorted, “No, I’m the one taking a picture with Superman!”

For one night in Hollywood, everything was right. And all was safe in America.

Too bad the rest of the country didn’t get to see it. Maybe next year.

Andrew Breitbart is the founder of the news Web site www.breitbart.com and is co-author of “Hollywood Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon — the Case Against Celebrity.”

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