The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian award, which more or less, sort of, makes it the civilian counterpart of the Medal of Honor. The Medal of Freedom was meant to be reserved, as John F. Kennedy put it in 1963, to recognize “an especially meritorious contribution to the security of national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public and private endeavors.”
High-sounding as those words may be, the Medal of Freedom does not require a recipient to have contributed “the last full measure of devotion” that is the common bond of those who wear the Medal of Honor on their chests. Still, a lot should be expected.
Some of the winners of the Medal of Freedom have earned authentic honor, as President Kennedy described the standard five decades ago. He awarded his medal to the likes of Marian Anderson, Pablo Casals and Rudolf Serkin. Those honored Tuesday night by President Obama included similarly accomplished Americans, such as Frank Gehry, the world-renowned architect; Margaret Hamilton, whose team devised the computer software for the Apollo space program; Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam War memorial, and Richard Garwin, a physicist of pioneering contributions to U.S. defense and intelligence technologies. Deserving winners all.
President Obama awarded the Medal as well to a collection of entertainers, athletes and celebrities famous mostly for being famous, no doubt deserving of honor in their fields, but out of place in a ceremony to recognize devotion and excellence as envisioned for the nation’s highest civilian award. Celebrity and show biz are particularly important to President Obama, and he admires no others like professors of basketball. He has two wizards of the slam dunk on this year’s list.
The artists of song and dance, movies and television no doubt deserve recognition as the supremely accomplished of their trade, and many who have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom were honored on other nights when the stars fell on Hollywood. But Oscars, Emmys, Tonys and Grammys, noble and worthy as they may be, should be held a cut below the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Ours is an age that celebrates lowered standards, and honors are not what they once were. The Nobel Peace Prize, for example, is of cheaper stuff than it used to be, awarded to make political points that have very little to do with the pursuit of honorable peace. President Obama himself won that prize just months into his presidency, just for winning an election.
He has awarded more Medals of Freedom than any other president, 123 by one count, 23 more than even Ronald Reagan, who after all was a son of Hollywood. Mr. Obama, in a fit of democratic consideration, has sprinkled the Medal of Freedom on several contributors to his campaigns for president, perhaps counting campaign cash as “meritorious contributions to the security and national interests of the United States.” President Truman awarded only two, far fewer than any other president.
But Mr. Truman’s judgment reflected an earlier age, when Americans put a higher price on devotion and accomplishment. On pinning the Medal of Honor to the chest of an American soldier, President Truman told him that “if I had the choice, I would rather be standing where you are, not where I am.” No one doubted that Captain Harry, a veteran of the trenches of World War I, meant every word of it.