A few years back I heard a television commentator say that because the United States, unlike Britain, was not a monarchy, the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest and most distinguished honor we can bestow upon a civilian—was the “American equivalent of an English knighthood.” It was a curious analogy.
Established in 1963 by John F. Kennedy (replacing the earlier “Medal of Freedom,” established by Harry Truman in 1945), the Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded for “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
There are some similarities between the Medal of Freedom and a KBE (Knight of the British Empire). For instance, both can be awarded to non-citizens. Knighthood has been bestowed on former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, former French President Francois Mitterrand, and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Similarly, the Medal of Freedom has been awarded to Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Vaclav Havel.
However, it should be noted that these foreign knighthoods are of a “lesser” variety. Non-British citizens are not permitted to use the title “Sir,” which means that while Helmut Kohl was free to go around telling folks he was a “knight,” he couldn’t go around asking them to call him “Sir.”
Another similarity is that both awards regularly get bestowed upon entertainers and athletes. Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Elton John, Judi Dench, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger (“Sir Michael”) have all been knighted. And on our side of the Atlantic, the Medal has been awarded to Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Kate Smith, Richard Petty, Doris Day, Mr. Rogers, Andy Griffith, Carol Burnett and Johnny Carson.
But despite the similarities, one wonders if there aren’t some fundamental differences in standards. One wonders, for example, if the Brits award KBEs to congenital screw-ups and bureaucratic flunkies as a face-saving device—as a means of allowing public officials (and their embarrassed superiors) to gracefully close the book on their careers—the way we do it with the Medal of Freedom. [Of course they do! That’s basically the function of the KBE, the CBE etc. Editors.]
Take the case of George Tenet, the former CIA Director. Tenet was forced to resign in disgrace after botching the Iraq WMD probe and lying to Congress about it. But after abruptly dumping him, George W. Bush softened the blow by awarding him the Medal of Freedom. Instead of being drummed out of government service and being made an ignoble example of, Tenet was given the country’s highest civilian honor.
The same with Paul Bremer. As many will recall, it was Bremer’s incompetence that more or less ruined any chance of a smooth post-war transition in Iraq. By (1) firing all the Baathist civil servants (the only employees qualified to run things), and (2) disbanding the Iraqi army, leaving 200,000 armed men with no paychecks, no futures, and a profound hatred of the U.S., Bremer turned an already messy situation into utter chaos. Although they couldn’t get rid of this guy fast enough, in order to save face, Bremer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Tangentially, one also wonders if the Medal is ever revoked. The British have done it. They stripped Sir Anthony Blunt of his KBE after it was publicly disclosed, late in his life, that Blunt had been a spy for the Soviet Union. It’s been said that Penn State football coach Joe Paterno lost his pending Medal of Freedom nomination as a result of the recent sex scandal. Would the government have gone to his home and retrieved the Medal had it already been awarded to him?
There’s also a mutual back-scratching quality to the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Consider: President George H. W. Bush awarded the Medal to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton awarded it to Gerald Ford, and Barack Obama awarded it to George H. W. Bush. Not only does this “I’ll give it you, then you give it to me” arrangement emit an unpleasant odor, but why on earth would an ex-President need the same medal that Richard Petty got?
The day will surely come when some future president awards the Medal of Freedom to George W. Bush. It will happen. The only question is, which event will occur first—George W. Bush getting his Medal, or Keith Richards joining Mick in knighthood?
DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org