President Joe Biden chose former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords and the late Sen. John McCain to be among those who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award that now seems to rank somewhere between “the nation’s highest civilian honor” and a peewee soccer league participation trophy, depending upon who is receiving it and who is handing it out.
The award was initiated by President John F. Kennedy at a time when there was no public disagreement about the worthiness of the recipients.
Kennedy presented the medal to a group that included writer E.B. White, painter Andrew Wyeth and celloist Pablo Casals. Others included individuals who aren’t household names. The scientist John Franklin Enders, for example, known to some as the “father of modern vaccines.” And Annie Dodge Wauneka, a Navajo tribal leader credited with greatly improving health care conditions in the Navajo Nation. And Ralph Bunche, a diplomat and the first Black American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
There wouldn’t have been any argument in Kennedy’s day – or now – that the group of medal recipients JFK chose are, as a government description of the award says, “individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.”
Politics crept in to the Medal of Freedom
More than 600 others have received the medal since Kennedy’s days, however, with varying degrees of “exemplary contributions” to the nation or the world.
Politics crept in, of course.
More and more.
Biden said in his announcement that the 17 individuals to whom he’ll present the medal “embody the soul of the nation.”
To a degree, that holds true for every group selected over the years, either in spite of the era’s politics or because of them.
Family feels betrayed:Kari Lake keeps attacking Sen. McCain’s legacy
President George W. Bush awarded the medal to Mr. Rogers and to the late baseball hall-of-famer and humanitarian Roberto Clemente. And to author Harper Lee. And to the great Aretha Franklin.
But he also gave a medal to actor and National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston.
President Barack Obama gave medals to his predecessor’s father, former President George H.W. Bush. He also honored Arizona’s Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. And Bob Dylan. And Steven Spielberg. And also civil rights leader and Rep. John Lewis.
The worst recipient ever was …
President Donald Trump awarded the medal to Babe Ruth and Elvis Presley. But he also gave one to conservative radio host and big Trump supporter Rush Limbaugh.
And in what may be the worst and most shamelessly political selection ever, he awarded the medal to Rep. Jim Jordan, a Trump sycophant, election denier and former Ohio State University assistant wrestling coach who remains under a dark cloud over sexual misconduct complaints about a team doctor that wrestlers say Jordan must have known about.
Then again, perhaps a grotesque and unwarranted selection like that does, in an awful way, “embody the soul of the nation.”
It doesn’t always work that way, however.
Then there are those who deserve it
Also embodying the soul of the nation is one of Biden’s award recipients, Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father who lost a son in the Iraq War and spoke so eloquently to Trump’s Muslim bias during the 2016 presidential elections.
Then there are Giffords and McCain.
Politics and personal agendas being what they are these days there are some individuals in America – even some I’ve heard from in Arizona – who say that neither Giffords nor McCain have made “exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States” and therefore don’t deserve a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Those individuals are wrong.
Reach Montini at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more opinions content, please subscribe.