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Trivializing the Medal of Freedom?

June 2024
4min read

Have Biden and other recent Presidents demeaned the award meant for “especially meritorious contributions to the security and national interests of the United States”?

Editor's Note: Last year, American Heritage ran a petition requesting that President Joe Biden award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Scruggs, a combat veteran and founder of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Scruggs was not among the list of recipients this year.

Another vocal supporter of Scruggs' efforts has been Mr. Reston, a journalist who has written two cover articles for our magazine and is the author, among other books, of A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial. The opinions in this letter are the author's own and not those of American Heritage.

In 1963 President John F. Kennedy established the supreme civilian decoration called the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His Executive Order #11086 defined the lofty standard for worthy recipients as those individuals who had provided the nation with “especially meritorious contributions to the security and national interests of the United States.” Superior cultural achievements also qualified.

Biden’s choice is an embarrassment, to him and to the award itself, having nothing to do with lifetime achievement or any profound contribution to American life

Regard the headliners of past presidents. For JFK, they were Ralph Bunche, Marian Andersen, E.B. White, and Andrew Wyeth. For LBJ, Aaron Copeland, T.S. Eliot, and Reinhold Niebuhr. For Nixon, Neil Armstrong and Duke Ellington. For Carter, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, and Eudora Welty. For Reagan, Buckminster Fuller and George Balanchine. For Clinton, Rosa Parks.

Now it has come down to this. Over the traditional Fourth of July time for the awards this year, President Biden’s headliner awards went to gymnast Simone Biles and women’s soccer star, Megan Rapinoe. This trivialization of JFK’s original vision for a supreme civilian award is a descent into fluffy transitory celebrity. Biden’s choice is an embarrassment, to him and to the award itself, having nothing to do with lifetime achievement or any profound contribution to American life, other than the joy that outstanding athleticism brings to Saturday afternoons.

The turn away from historic, enduring figures began with President H.W. Bush with choice of Lucille Ball. His lead was followed by George W. Bush with his choices of Bill Cosby, Doris Day, and Carol Burnett. Obama weighed in with Yogi Berra. And then Trump characteristically reached the nadir with Rush Limbaugh.

I do not denigrate in any way the pure joy that Ms. Biles and Ms. Rapinoe have brought to us. Biles’ magic on the balance bar was superhuman and her Olympic metals are unparalleled. That she brought down the monster doctor at Michigan State makes her an important figure in the fight against sexual abuse. She is an authentic hero. As is Megan Rapinoe. As a college soccer player myself many decades ago I gloried in her captaincy of the triumphant women’s soccer team and vicariously lived the skill and strategy of her team every step of the way. I greatly admire her championing of gay rights and her leadership in the fight to achieve equality of women’s sports with men’s.

But these achievements do not rise to JFK’s original vision of lasting historic contribution. There will soon be new stars in Olympic arena and on the soccer pitch. They do not walk in the shoes of Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, other awardees. The pleasure they have provided as idle distractions for sports nuts like me is not enough. The dismaying White House celebration smacked of the nation’s first grandfather trying lamely to show young voters how hip and with-it he is.  

How different it might have been with Biden if he had harnessed his choices both to JFK’s vision and to the pivotal historic times we are living through now with two years of Covid, the Ukrainian War, the Afghanistan withdrawal, climate change, the mass shootings, and January 6.

Here are my suggestions – there are certainly other equivalents – about what might have been and what could be the next time around.

Robert S. Langer. Professor at MIT and central figure in the frantic search for a COVID vaccine. With contributions from many others, he pioneered continuous release formulations and lipid nanoparticles to deliver nucleic acids that became a key part of the technology for the Pfizer and Moderna Covid vaccines.

George Soros. Founder of Open Source Foundations to promote democracy, human rights and education around the world with more than $30 billion of his wealth, he is credited with playing a big role in promoting the struggle for human rights in Russia, earning him the ire of Russian leaders. His choice would be a rebuke autocrats throughout the world.

Jan Scruggs, the founder of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, combat veteran, and PTSD sufferer who began the campaign for the memorial with a few hundred dollars of his own money. Indefatigable against enormous odds, the very existence of the transformational universal memorial to grief is due to him. The artists of the Memorial, Maya Lin and Frederick Hart already have their presidential awards. His choice would complete the triangle. It would also be a tribute to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who were sent unheralded to those far away places time and again amid the indifference of their country.  

Lee Hamilton and Governor Tom Kean, a dual award to the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, for their steady stewardship of the nation’s investigation of the attack and for nurturing the Commission’s final report. That final report is the gold standard for all reports on national disasters and should be the model for the final report of the January 6 investigation when all the evidence is compiled and digested.

William Cohen. Politician, poet, author, pragmatist, he is a paragon of bi-partisanship and good government, one of the first Republicans to do the right thing on Watergate. He stands as a lonely icon for open-minded Republicans in approaching the legacy of January 6.

Roger Revelle (posthumous) the oceanographer at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography from UC San Diego California whose seminal research in 1957 discovered the potential harmful effects of CO2 in the atmosphere that was caused by the combustion of fossil fuels and that these greenhouse gases could contribute to dangerous global warming. Revelle described the ‘buffer factor,” now called the “Revelle factor,” suggesting that the oceans would not absorb the lion’s share of atmospheric CO2 as was thought at the time. His discovery began the debate over the relationship of fossil fuel emissions to global warming that has finally begun to register in the public mind.

Dr. Bernice (Bunny) Sandler, the Godmother of Title IX who died in 2019 whose work made the paths of Biles and Rapinoe and all other women athletes a reality. 

Let’s return to first principles. There are other top awards for distinction in national security, diplomacy, science, athletics, and the arts, but this award was intended to be unique and preeminent,  standing atop them all as the supreme distinction for a civilian American. It needs to be returned to its rightful place.

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