In a country built on a system of checks and balances, it’s intriguing to have an award that allows the President to reveal some personal preferences. Since February 1963, when John F. Kennedy’s executive order made bestowing the Medal of Freedom a Presidential privilege the highest civilian honor in the nation has offered unique insight into the elite group of people who inspire our Commanders-in-Chief. Officially, the award, which President Obama is scheduled to present to 16 people on Aug. 12, is for those who have contributed “to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” It’s not the most clear-cut definition and over the years, the choices have caused some commotion.
One of Obama’s picks, former Irish President Mary Robinson, has been panned in some circles for her role in coordinating 2002’s World Conference Against Racism, otherwise known as the Durban conference in South Africa, which was widely viewed as discriminatory itself. Some of Obama’s less controversial choices include the late gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, tennis great Billie Jean King, South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, Senator Ted Kennedy and actor Sidney Poitier.
While Obama lauded his selections as “agents of change,” each President has adopted different criterion for making his picks. Before JFK’s 1963 order, the award, which was originally established by President Harry Truman in 1945, was given mostly to non-American allies who had helped in the war effort. JFK chose people from all walks of life, but was assassinated before he could present his first round of medals. Lyndon Johnson handed out the awards to 31 people in JFK’s stead and honored his successor with a posthumous medal as well.
Richard Nixon gave astronaut Neil Armstrong the honor in 1969. Gerald Ford would place the medal around the necks of composer Irving Berlin, Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio and even LBJ’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, an early reach across the political aisle. In 1997, President Bill Clinton was commended in some quarters for awarding the honor to Bob Dole, whom he had just defeated in the 1996 election. But many Presidents keep it within their political party. During his tenure, Jimmy Carter awarded the Medal of Freedom to liberals like Margaret Mead, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and biologist Rachel Carson, and Ronald Reagan apart from picking Hollywood friends like James Cagney, Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart came under fire for lauding anti-Communists like Clare Boothe Luce and Whittaker Chambers.
President George H.W. Bush awarded medals to Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell who also earned one from Clinton Secretary of State James Baker, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and security adviser Brent Scowcroft in 1991. In a similar move, President George W. Bush gave the nod to Tommy Franks, the retired Army general who led the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions; former CIA Director George Tenet and L. Paul Bremer, who oversaw reconstruction in Iraq. Bush said the three men had “played pivotal roles in great events” to make “our country more secure” a sentiment that wasn’t exactly shared by many. But despite the chorus of critics, there’s no recourse when a President makes up his mind on who’s deserving of the top civilian honor. It’s one of the perks of the world’s toughest job.