People applauded, cameras clicked, and, away from the action, snarky comments were made, all in response to Donald Trump issuing the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom to professional golfer Eldrick “Tiger” Woods, winner of last month’s Masters Tournament.
While Trump acolytes viewed the award as not only fitting but auspicious—arguably the greatest golfer in history being honored by, arguably, the greatest president in history—cynics saw it as a transparent attempt by Trump to court the African-American vote, and, tangentially encourage black athletes to stop boycotting the White House.
But in truth, of all of the calculated and self-aggrandizing stunts Trump has pulled, this wasn’t one of them. In fact, give him credit for doing something “normal” for a change, because this was pretty much right out of White House playbook. If anyone deserved the medal, Tiger did. Paul “Bear” Bryant (via Ronald Reagan) and Richard Petty (via George H.W. Bush) each got one. Why shouldn’t Tiger?
A bit of history. The Presidential Medal of Freedom was established in 1963, by John F. Kennedy. According to its charter statement, it is to be awarded by the President of the United States “for especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
It’s been said that Great Britain’s monarchy bestows knighthoods on deserving commoners, and the U.S. hands out Presidential Medals of Freedom. It’s a fair analogy. Because we Americans pretend to be down-to-earth egalitarians living in a meritocracy, we don’t believe in fancy titles, which is to say, most people, including hardcore football fans, would be uncomfortable referring to Coach Bryant as “Sir Bear.”
In any case, no president has awarded more Medals of Freedom than Barack Obama, who gave them out like door prizes at a church social. During his two terms in office, he issued a whopping 123 of them. Not only did he give one to Stephen Hawking, Desmond Tutu, and Oprah, he even gave one to his buddy and ex-running mate, Joe Biden.
Ronald Reagan is a distant second to Obama, with 102 medals. Accordingly, many of Reagan’s awards went to ex-show biz people like James Cagney, James Stewart, Helen Hayes, Danny Kaye, and Frank Sinatra. Although the Presidential Medal of Freedom is an executive order, issued by the president himself, most of the recipients names come off a list compiled by White House staffers.
After all, U.S. presidents tend to have more on their minds than who should be given medals. In fact, it should come as no surprise that, despite the flowery, well-written speeches accompanying presentation of the award, many of the honorees are people the president has never heard of.
Given Ronald Reagan’s celebrated aversion to anything intellectual or abstract, in 1985, when he presented philosopher Sidney Hook with the Medal of Freedom, it was greeted with derisive chuckles. Not that the distinguished NYU professor was a household name, but it was clear that President Reagan didn’t know Sidney Hook from Captain Hook.
So far, including Tiger Woods, Donald Trump has issued a total of 8 medals, three of them—Babe Ruth, Antonin Scalia and Elvis Presley—posthumously. Ex-NFL players Roger Staubach and Alan Page, Miriam Adelson (philanthropist, wife of Sheldon) and Orrin Hatch (ex-senator from Utah) fill out the list.
Considering how childishly insecure Trump is, once he finds out that Obama holds the record for most Medals of Freedom, one wonders if he will try to beat it. The one thing standing in the way of that is that Trump not only doesn’t like sharing the limelight with anyone, but is averse to giving too much praise to people whom he can’t later fire.
But because a Presidential Medal of Freedom, once ordered, cannot be challenged or rescinded, wouldn’t it be funny—“funny” in that grotesque, cry-ourselves-to-sleep sort of way we’ve come to expect—if among those he named were Vladimir Putin and Ivanka?