What Do You Want? A Medal?

The world no longer offers any honors worth aspiring to. Nobel Peace Prize winners were once a big deal, but by now that club includes a Communist apparatchik such as Le Duc Tho and a mass-murdering thug such as Yasir Arafat, as well as such mediocrities as Mohamad Al-Baradei, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama, so it isn’t worth the effort it would take to join. Pulitzer Prizes have been similarly devalued, and are now offered in lieu of readers to the writers who most closely hew to the conventional wisdom. People still watch the Academy Awards to see pretty people wearing pretty clothes, but Al Gore has one of those, too, and at this point nobody believes that the ceremony is honoring the best motion pictures have to offer. The most valuable player awards in the major sports leagues still indicate some sort of excellence, but these days there’s no telling how much of it was pharmaceutically induced. Even the highest degrees from the most prestigious colleges no longer offer any assurance that the holder has any smarts at all, and it’s hard to think of any titles, prizes, certifications, or awards that do.
Still, we look forward to each year’s announcement of the Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees with a stubborn hope of finding someone among the honorees who is truly honorable. The annual news stories always describe the medal as “the nation’s highest civilian award,” even if has been diminished by the presidents from which it derives its name, and the distinction does seem to reflect a consensus of societal opinion about who is to be regarded as an exceptional citizen of the country. This year 16 people were chosen for the honor, the number having increased in every recent year according to the same grade inflation that has proliferated the number of Little League and academic achievement awards to point that every second-graders bedroom is overflowing with the things, and the law of averages dictates that there must be someone worthy among so many selections.
This year’s class is a diverse lot, in keeping with the contemporary fetish for diversity, and includes a wide range of occupations as well as the usual racial and sexual quotas. On the whole they are an impressive lot, but the list offers yet another reflection of societal decline.
Former president Bill Clinton is included despite his well-known family feud with the current president, and after George H.W. Bush was honored last year despite being a Republican and a Bush, it seems that all former presidents will eventually be given the honor. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the office’s essential contribution to American life, or just a way of ensuring that Obama will get his medal no matter who succeeds him, but in either case it seems a perfunctory selection. We can think of worse presidents than Clinton, including one who will soon be draping a medal over his neck, but we’d note that when most people recall his contributions to the cause of freedom they immediately think of fellatio jokes.
Oprah Winfrey is the next most familiar name on the list. Most of our afternoons have been spent either working or sleeping, so we have no knowledge of the television talk show that made Winfrey famous and cannot testify to her putatively inspirational qualities, but what we do know of this woman is less than heroic. She’s still infamous here in cattle country for her panicked response to the brief Mad Cow Disease outbreak, and we understand that she’s taken a dangerously unscientific stand on the immunization of children, and her most recent headlines have concerned his bizarre analogy between the murder of Emmett Till and the self-defense shooting of Trayvon Martin, so she hardy strikes us as someone worth honoring with the nation’s highest civilian award. We’ve spent enough time in grocery store check-out lines to have gleamed from the tabloid headlines that Winfrey has battled a weight problem, but if that qualifies someone for a Presidential Medal of Freedom the country will soon be bankrupted from coining the damned things.
Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee was another familiar name, at least for those old enough to remember his role in uncovering the Watergate scandal, which was surely the reason for his inclusion. Sen. Daniel Inouye will receiving the award posthumously, in part because of his heroic service to the country during World War II and in part because of his longstanding service to the Democratic party thereafter. Former Sen. Richard Lugar was also honored, in part because a Republican was required to keep the whole affair from seeming a partisan event but mostly as compensation for having been ousted from office by a more robustly Republican primary challenger. Feminist gadfly Gloria Steinem will also receive a medal, so the ideological requirements for the award should be clear.
There were a few names we were pleased to see. Baseball star Ernie Banks, who was a fine player on some terrible Chicago Cubs teams and still retained enough enthusiasm for the game to say “Let’s play two,” made the cut. So did Loretta Lynn, an outstanding country music singer who deserves the nation’s undying gratitude if only for her rendition of “One’s on the Way,” a Shel Silverstein-penned bit of wry domestic drama and social commentary set in Topeka, Kansas, which we dearly love. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, astronaut Sally Ride, and jazzman Arturo Sandoval are also admirable people who made significant contributions to the country. After too many years working in a newsroom jammed with arrogant University of North Carolina and University of Kansas alumni we have mixed feelings about the selection of Dean Smith, who coached the former university’s basketball team to national championships and was a star player for the latter school, but he seems to enjoy a stellar reputation in both states and is also an understandable selection.
We cannot comment on the selections of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, chemist and environmental scientist Mario Malina, civil rights activist Cordy Tendell Vivian, or jurist Patricia Wald, as we have never heard of any them, but there is a nagging suspicion that each were chosen in accordance with the same political biases as the rest. Even such worthy recipients as Banks and Lynn no doubt benefited from racial and sexual quotas, Ride is famous as much for being a woman as being an astronaut, as a homosexual African-American Rustin might feel entitled to two medals, Sandoval was chosen before more important trumpeters because he is an Hispanic player in an African-American idiom, and Smith is a flatteringly representative token of middle-American white men.
America could do worse, we suppose, but would be nice to think that we could better.

— Bud Norman