The Presidential Medal of Freedom


Think of a president of the United States as the world’s most powerful fanboy — or, someday, fangirl.

Whom does he idolize above all others? Here’s a clue: Who gets the Presidential Medal of Freedom? That’s the highest civilian honor that the nation can bestow. The medal — the closest thing to an American knighthood — is awarded by the president for a major contribution to American security or national interests, “cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” or, no pressure here, world peace.

This year, the White House’s chief hoops fan anointed the world’s greatest basketball player, Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls.

“There is a reason you call someone ‘the Michael Jordan of’ — Michael Jordan of neurosurgery or the Michael Jordan of rabbis or the Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing — and they know what you’re talking about,” President Barack Obama said at Tuesday’s ceremony. “Because Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of greatness. He is the definition of somebody so good at what they do that everybody recognizes them. That’s pretty rare.” No argument here; we marveled as Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won six NBA championships.

Obama has awarded more of these medals — 114 — than any of his predecessors, according to a group of academics writing in a Washington Post op-ed. Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan tied for second with 86; President Richard Nixon was the stingiest with 27.

Even for the rich and accomplished, earning a Medal of Freedom is a singular achievement. Bob Dylan, famous now for declining to attend the Nobel ceremony in Sweden to accept his 2016 Peace Prize, showed up at the White House for his medal in 2012. “I have to say that I am a really big fan,” Obama gushed as he introduced Dylan. “I remember, you know, in college listening to Bob Dylan, and my world opening up because he captured something about this country that was so vital.”

Not all winners are household names. For instance: Tom Little, an optometrist murdered by the Taliban while on a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan, received a medal posthumously in 2010.

In 2009, the medal cast a klieg light on Dr. Janet Davison Rowley, a University of Chicago geneticist hailed as the first scientist to identify a chromosomal abnormality as the cause of leukemia and other cancers, which led to the development of life-saving therapies. “When I tried to tell my family, I couldn’t help crying,” Rowley said in a statement. “I was overwhelmed for 24 hours.”

At the ceremony Tuesday, even the spotlight-accustomed Jordan teared up.

President Harry Truman started the Medal of Freedom in 1945 to honor wartime service. President John F. Kennedy replaced it with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for peacetime achievement in 1963. Kennedy was assassinated before his selected award winners — among them writers E.B. White and Thornton Wilder — could be honored. That duty fell to his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The list of medal winners is a who’s who of luminaries (not all American citizens) who dreamed great dreams, broke barriers, saved lives and inspired and entertained millions. That includes everyone from B.B. King (President George W. Bush, 2006) to Elie Wiesel (George H.W. Bush, 1992); Toni Morrison (Obama, 2012) to Milton Friedman (Ronald Reagan, 1988); John Glenn (Obama, 2012) to Jonas Salk, (Jimmy Carter, 1977). There’s nary a clunker in the bunch (prominent exception in retrospect: President George W. Bush’s selection of comedian Bill Cosby in 2002.)

What we like about this medal is that you can only get it by impressing the president, who isn’t easily impressed by celebrities who babble on Twitter or Facebook or by people whose sole focus in life is swelling their bank accounts. (Or, at least, he shouldn’t be.)

Yes, investor Warren Buffett got a 2010 medal from Obama, not merely for his legendary stock market savvy but for leading The Giving Pledge, which encourages wealthy Americans to chip in at least half of their net worth to philanthropy. Bill and Melinda Gates, too, made the cut recently for their foundation’s work to improve education and health globally.

Obama set a high bar. Now he passes the baton to President-elect Donald Trump, whose selections will reveal much about the newest presidential fanboy. Choose wisely, Mr. Trump. History watches — and judges.

Chicago Tribune

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