The Magazine

Debased Medal of Freedom

Aug 26, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 47 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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As readers will know, The Scrapbook makes a good-faith effort to avoid end-of-civilization/apocalypse-now pronouncements based on the popularity of certain television programs, or scandals in sports, or other bits and pieces of evidence in the culture. So let’s just say that we looked over this year’s list of recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which were announced last week, and felt a little disheartened.

MOF

The Medal of Freedom, which was originally awarded by President Harry Truman to recognize civilian contributions to the victory in World War II, was renamed and reauthorized by President John F. Kennedy in 1963—complete with glowing citation, handsome medal, and blue sash—to honor “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” 

By a sad coincidence, Kennedy was assassinated just two weeks before the first scheduled White House ceremony to bestow the new award. But President Lyndon Johnson went ahead with the event—a somber, even slightly macabre, occasion—where a group of distinguished citizens were assembled and honored, with tragic dignity, in the shadow of the late president’s death: Rudolf Serkin, Felix Frankfurter, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Ralph Bunche, Edmund Wilson, Robert Lovett, Marian Anderson, John McCloy, Thornton Wilder, James B. Conant, and a handful of others, including a posthumous award to Pope John XXIII, who had died the previous June.

Needless to say, in the subsequent half-century, the medal’s currency has declined a bit: It is now routinely awarded to superannuated pols, and the definition of “cultural or other significant public or private endeavors” has been stretched to some degree: Warren Buffett (2011), Jesse Jackson (2000), Lew Wasserman (1995), Maya Angelou (2011), Edgar Bronfman (1999), Herblock (1994), Frank Reynolds (1985), Richard Petty (1992), Dave Thomas (2003), Andy Griffith (2005), and so on.

Like the Kennedy Center Honors in performing arts, the ranks of the Presidential Medal of Freedom are now weighted toward celebrity and pop culture—even financial contributions to presidential campaigns—and of course, carefully balanced for sex and race. You may get the idea from a half-dozen names of this year’s laureates: Ben Bradlee, Loretta Lynn, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Lugar, Gloria Steinem.

This is not the end of the world, of course. Nor should we infer too much from a prize list assembled by the current White House occupant: Harvard University, after all, awarded Oprah Winfrey an honorary degree last May. The Edmund Wilsons and Justice Frankfurters and Rudolf Serkins of America still exist: The problem is that our cultural and political “leaders” don’t seem to recognize much difference between, say, Oprah and the late Pope John XXIII.

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