What Trump’s picks for Presidential Medal of Freedom say about him

President Donald Trump presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Miriam Adelson during a ceremony in White House, in Washington, D.C., Nov. 16, 2018 | Associated Press photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta, St. George News

FEATURE (THE CONVERSATION) — President Donald Trump awarded his first ever Presidential Medals of Freedom this month to seven recipients: Babe Ruth, Elvis Presley, Antonin Scalia, Orrin Hatch, Roger Staubach, Alan Page and Miriam Adelson. It is the nation’s highest civilian honor.

These ceremonies, which normally occur once or twice per year, provide Americans with an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of various people who have made an important contribution to U.S. culture. Because the president selects recipients with total discretion – American or otherwise, living or dead –- this award also says a lot about the president himself.

What achievements or contributions does the president consider important? What groups of people most easily win his favor? And how does he hope to shape his legacy, judging by the company that he chooses to keep?

To find out, we’ve analyzed every Presidential Medal of Freedom ever awarded, and the presidents who awarded them – including Trump.

What is the Presidential Medal of Freedom?

The award was established by President John F. Kennedy, in 1963, to recognize “any person who has made an 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.”

As a unilateral power of the executive branch, presidents have broad discretion to choose recipients. But presidents often use the award for political purposes – to gain positive media attention, shape their legacy or reward their supporters.

Our research shows that the politicization of the medal has increased over time. Before 1981, Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremonies were sporadic, and recognized only about five recipients at a time.

This changed when President Ronald Reagan – a media-savvy, former Hollywood actor – began hosting large ceremonies designed to maximize public attention. President Barack Obama has since raised the bar. In 2016, he awarded 20 medals to recipients including athletes like Michael Jordan and entertainers like Bruce Springsteen. In fact, Obama holds the record for awarding the most medals in total: 115. That’s about 14 per year on average.

Who gets a medal?

Much of it depends on whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican, but this isn’t always the case. For instance, presidents from both parties often pick politicians and public servants.

Obama awarded his last Presidential Medal of Freedom to his vice president, Joe Biden.

President Trump honored Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Not surprisingly, these awards usually go to a president’s political allies.

Read more: Hatch joins Elvis, Babe Ruth as recipient of Trump’s Presidential Medal of Freedom

We also see clear partisan differences. For instance, Democratic presidents are more likely to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to civil rights leaders, labor organizers and people of color. Republicans are more likely to bestow the medal on military leaders, white people and conservative editors and pundits. In other words, presidents tend to award Presidential Medals of Freedom to members of their party’s key constituency groups.

President Trump’s picks

President Trump’s first round of medals is unusual in at least one respect: He waited 20 months to award them, longer than any other president. This is surprising for a president who enjoys commanding the media’s attention and exercising unilateral executive power.

Trump’s seven selections include three athletes and three posthumous awards – well above the mark for past recipients, 5 percent of whom were athletes and 10 percent recognized posthumously. One of these is baseball great Babe Ruth, who died 70 years ago, in 1948.

Trump’s selections also differ markedly from those of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Whereas Obama selected the most diverse set of recipients to date – 36 percent of whom were women, and 39 percent people of color – Trump has selected six men and six white people, out of seven recipients.

And while Trump’s selection of Miriam Adelson – a doctor, philanthropist and, perhaps most importantly, a GOP mega-donor – has been controversial, he is hardly the first president to award the nation’s highest civilian honor to a prominent political supporter. Obama, for one, awarded the medal to Oprah Winfrey – who gave him a key endorsement in the 2008 primaries. He also awarded it to Democratic activists such as Barbra Streisand and Bruce Springsteen. But the sheer size and scope of Adelson’s political contributions – more than US$113 million in combination with her husband, Sheldon – differentiates her from past recipients.

Who will Trump pick next?

Trump’s future selections will tell us even more about who he is and what legacy he wants to leave as president. In fact, if these first awards are any indication, Trump might use his medal selections to associate himself with cultural icons not yet claimed by other presidents – as he did by picking Elvis this year.

What’s next, then?

Why not “the great presidents” – think George Washington? Or great inventors – think George Washington Carver?

If Donald Trump’s mission is to “Make America Great Again,” the Presidential Medal of Freedom may be our best indication of what greatness looks like to him.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. The Conversation

Written by E. FLETCHER MCCLELLAN, Elizabethtown College; CHRISTOPHER DEVINE, University of Dayton; and KYLE C. KOPKO, Elizabethtown College.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2018 The Conversation. All rights reserved. This material may only be published, broadcast or redistributed under The Conversation’s republishing guidelines.

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  • Guillermo F. November 18, 2018 at 6:05 pm

    Elvis Presley was an advocates of greater causes than those inherent in his profession. For instance, he was the primer mover in the exponential increase in the immunization level of all americands when he agreed to take the third version of Dr. Jonas Salk’s anti polio vaccine on October 28, 1956. He did that in front of the entire world’s press, and by April of 1957 the aforementioned level had risen from 0.6% to 80%. This took place 4 hours before he faced 55 million during his second appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and not during it, as erroneoslly reported. Now, since this coincided with the of double invasion of Hungary by the then Soviet Union, of 24 and 31 October, Presley took it upon himself that, by his next appearance on the Sullivan Show, he would launch an appeal for emergency assistance to lessen the plight of what by then he knew had become some 250,000 refugees fleeing for their lives. The appeal yielded some US$6 million, the equivalent of US$49.5 in 2018 dollars, and the International Red Cross in Geneva distributed, throughout 1957, the perishables and non persihables purchased with these funds to the quarter million in Austria and England, where they happily settled for life. These are in addition to the couple of thousand who made it to both Canada and the US, under different auspices. Now, in 2011, the Mayor of Budapest, who by his own admission does not own a single Presley record, honoured him posthumously, as a gesture of gratitude, for his advocacy, naming a park after him, as well as making him an honorary citizen, thus making Presley the only US born individual to be so honoured, and joining a list that includes Swedish Diplomat and WWII martyr, Raul Wallenberg , Polish, activist then Head of State and Nobel Laureate Lech Walesa, and Edward Teller, a naturalized American who is known as the Father of the hydrogen Bomb, the latter two, coincidentally., former recipients of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. Presley’ s advocacies continued in 1957, when he agreed to fill up an entire stadium with donors, which he did on the night of June 28 of that year, at the request of DannyThomas, whose dream of building St Jude’s by organizing a benefit show had yet to materialize in spite of two tries, in the previous biennium. Presley stood there, did not sing, spoke to the 11,000 who came from TN, MS and AR, and by December of 1957 enough funding had been received to start the planning towards the construction of Thomas’ dream. Another dream that had yet to materialize, in 1961, was that of the Memorial for the 1,102 who perished during the Japanese Air Force attack on Pearl Harbor of December 6 1941. On March 26, 1961 Presley heralded a benefit concert whose gross turned out to be 17% of the Memorial’s total cost, leading to its speedy contruction by 1962, when it was dedicated not by another posthumous recipient, John F. Kennedy ( as should have been the case), but by then Texas Congressman and Chairman of Veteran Affairs Olin E. Teague and Hawaii”s Governor John A. Burns. Since that day, some 67 million have toured it, from every corner of the world. In early 1964, Presley gifted the USS Potomac, FDR’s Presidential yatch to St Jude’s so the could auction it for a big profit, which they did, late that same year. It is a testament to the good judgement Presley exercised in his advocacies, as well as in his 50 other charities, that the vessell, which for decades was misused, and had even sunk, was salvaged by the Coast Guard which renovated it. This historic ship is now anchored at a dock in Oakland from which it takes tourists to the Golden Gate and back. And it all started with Elvis’ giving it to St Jude’s…

  • Utahguns November 18, 2018 at 6:29 pm

    Forget the attempt at journalistic objectivity in this article.

    Go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Presidential_Medal_of_Freedom_recipients

    and make your own decisions….

    • bikeandfish November 18, 2018 at 7:41 pm

      What in particular did you take issue with in the piece?

      Per objectivity, this wasn’t a classic news article. Its narrative based reporting which requires some level of interpretation.

      • Utahguns November 19, 2018 at 8:45 am

        It terribly obvious that this is a left leaning, anti-Trump piece.
        The contents of this article come from very liberal oriented news sources.

        Did you visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Presidential_Medal_of_Freedom_recipients ?

        • bikeandfish November 19, 2018 at 11:48 am

          Its actually not “terribly obvious that this is a left-leaning, anti-Trump piece” and an accusation like that deserves some evidence. The piece is written for “The Conversation” which is an independent news source and incredibly transparent about a writer’s connections; each piece has a “disclosure statement” regarding the specialist and authors of the piece. Its doesn’t get much more honest and independent than that in media.

          As well, the piece was fact-based in a way that might be construed as inconvenient for multiple presidents. Its not hard to see the way in which Obama radically changed the use of the award from the reporting in this piece.

          And the wikipedia link isn’t very cogent unless you are making an argument and highlighting a specific piece of evidence from the link; in which case its best to offer a sample quote or something. But yes, I read through it and didn’t see anything inconsistent with this piece.

          • Utahguns November 19, 2018 at 2:22 pm

            I’m sticking to my comments and you have every right to voice yours.
            I’m just not buying your statement about the unbiased sources of this article nor am I convinced that the article can be construed as anything but anti-Trump.

            pax vobiscum

    • Carpe Diem November 19, 2018 at 9:30 am

      Oh! Reagan awarded Buckminster Fuller. What a hoot!

    • tazzman November 19, 2018 at 12:32 pm

      I thought the article was pretty even-handed. I mean, the article takes pains to point out that previous POTUS also awarded celebrities and political allies.

  • 42214 November 18, 2018 at 9:42 pm

    To quote Mesaman, “Racist”.

    • KR567 November 19, 2018 at 6:20 am

      422….lol ….nice one !

  • commonsense November 19, 2018 at 7:47 am

    Trump is apolitical. He spends no time trying to pander to identity groups like Blacks or women.
    He just awarded medals based on merit. Who can argue that Elvis and Babe Ruth changed their respective genre. Trump will get no new followers by his selections. Contrast this with Obama who is the consummate troll for the scattered little groups of freaks we call Democrats.

    • bikeandfish November 19, 2018 at 9:51 am

      Fundamentally untrue. Trump is always pandering to his base. Look at the his choice of Adelson. They are some of the biggest political donors in this country. As the article highlighted they donated $113 million.

      I love that Obama pandered to freaks. Its not like Trump has rallied ethno-nationalist and white supremacists or energized anti-semites in his recent years. Reveals alot about your values.

      • Comment November 19, 2018 at 1:36 pm

        bike, I used to think he was some kind of troll. But now I think he actually believes this stuff that he spews.

        Like this:

        Adelson gives the trump campaign millions of dollars ———-> trump then gives adelson’s wife a special presidential award = a normal person see’s this as very much politically motivated (actually worse than that but…)

        In commonsense’s mind:

        Adelson gives the trump campaign millions of dollars ———-> trump then gives adelson’s wife a special presidential award = “Trump is totally apolitical”

        He actually can see no fault in his logic, which is the scary thing. And even scarier is that he’s a “physician”.

        • Comment November 19, 2018 at 1:41 pm

          I was arguing with him once about all the faults of Bush II. To him Bush II is totally faultless and all he could do was shift the discussion to blaming the clintons for everything. To him the world is either black or white with nothing in between. I’m sure there is a psychological explanation to this bizarre behavior, but… I’m no psychologist. hmm

        • bikeandfish November 19, 2018 at 2:32 pm

          Sadly, partisan tribalism leads to that sort of behavior. We have seen plenty of anecdotal evidence and even studies that people will find ways to justify their candidates to extreme lengths. Even when confronted with indisputable facts we know most partisans will choose tribe over empirical data. Trump is the clearest example right now but it was only a few years ago we had the same proof about Obama supporters.

          It seems democracy’s principle flaw is the irrational behavior of its people.

    • Comment November 19, 2018 at 11:25 am

      commonsense, you are so out of touch with reality, where to even begin?! You see only what you want to see. Are you still a “physician”? Sometimes I can’t believe how loony people can be. It still astounds me…

      • KR567 November 19, 2018 at 3:37 pm

        Well the world doesn’t revolve on your point of view ( thank God ) for that. I can’t believe how looney people can be. it still astounds me…

  • Carpe Diem November 19, 2018 at 9:21 am

    “Obama, for one, awarded the medal to Oprah Winfrey – who gave him a key endorsement in the 2008 primaries. He also awarded it to Democratic activists such as Barbra Streisand and Bruce Springsteen. ”

    he he he

    Say, have those recipients picked up their medals and skedaddled out of the Country yet? It’s gonna be a long 8 years for them.

  • tazzman November 19, 2018 at 12:30 pm

    They need to do away with this relic of patronage.

  • Red2Blue310 November 19, 2018 at 1:09 pm

    Surprised Trump didnt choose himself. Bet theres one in his closet he snatched for himself.

  • commonsense November 19, 2018 at 3:43 pm

    Trump is not trolling for new identity groups unlike the Dems who want Muslims, BLM, Antifa, women, gays, criminals. Hispanics. Sure Trump rewarded a major donor who was otherwise deserving.
    How did Elvis and Babe increase his power base? On the other hand the Hollywoods Obama awarded are still alive and wield power by there persona, not the accomplishment. Trump loves America and it’s heroes.
    BTW Trump doesn’t need political donations.

    • iceplant November 19, 2018 at 4:23 pm

      “Muslims, BLM, Antifa, women, gays, criminals. Hispanics.”

      All of whom are American citizens and are afforded the same rights as you are.
      Your president is nothing more than a puppet and this medal of freedom is a distraction for folks like yourself who aren’t paying attention to what’s really happening. You’ve allowed yourself to be duped. Be proud.

    • Red2Blue310 November 19, 2018 at 6:41 pm

      I was surprised to find out that “Antifa” is short for Anti Facist. Why do dummies on the right talk as if that is a gang of thugs when in fact they should be mad at the opposition to Antfa. Talk about anti semitic.

    • Comment November 19, 2018 at 6:46 pm

      The problem is your black and white thinking. You think dems are all these evil ghouls out to get you any chance they get. I don’t agree with all their ultra leftist BS at all, but I still vote for them. I still see them as the lesser evil on the issues that really count. I don’t believe ALL repubs are evil either. I just don’t ascribe to this tribal, ultra black and white thinking like you do. People and issues are a lot more complex than that.

  • commonsense November 19, 2018 at 8:14 pm

    RedBlue, BTW Antifa is a gang of thugs financed by George Soros for the sole purpose of intimidation and disruption of everything Trump. They cowardly wear masks and are violent.

    • Comment November 20, 2018 at 4:59 pm

      Yep, antifa is just like you. they see everything as black or white, good or evil. they’ve lost the ability to think rationally, and for themselves.

  • Redbud November 20, 2018 at 2:28 am

    I agree this is certainly an anti-trump article. Whether anyone agrees with it or not, the president gets to decide who receives the medal. Trump is not racist, so it doesn’t matter if it goes to someone of color or not. It should not even be an issue, and because this news article turned it into an issue, this is despicable behavior by the author. Whoever wrote it spews their filthy hatred and they should be ashamed of themselves.

  • bikeandfish November 20, 2018 at 10:45 am

    We are seeing plenty examples of what happens when people experience cognitive dissonance. We have a high quality, factual article that lays out differences in how Trump has awarded individuals compared to other presidents in history and yet we see an outsized reaction from Trump enthusiasts.

    For example, their are no claims of racism in the article. Zero. But we see that specter raised to justify calling of the article “anti-Trump”. I think that highlights that even many of his supporters recognize Trump’s team and choices don’t reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of this country. Why else would simply reporting the fact that he awarded far fewer minorities the medal create such a significant response?

    At this point Trump has primed the pump to the point that reporting facts is called “anti-Trump” and “fake news”. It still amazes me that people don’t recognize that only benefits him as a president and not citizens. We see this across the board. For example, the tariffs are hurting countless farmers across the country as soy beans, apples, etc sit in storage waiting for the trade war to end. I believe there is roughly a $1 billion loss to many agricultural markets across the country, on top of already low prices to begin with. That translates to about 70k loss per farm. But reporting those facts are “anti-Trump” and “fake news” because it doesn’t present his agenda in a positive light.

    Its sad as now a large portion of the country only trust a handful of news sources that support the Trump agenda even when its factually incorrect. In short, they are being spoon fed propaganda. Our country’s foundational support of the free press was justified to fight such an outcome. Our press exists to educate citizens with facts (like this article does) and compare them to the claims of their government leadership. And our founder’s actually believed and wrote passionately about the press being a weapon against bullies, tyrants and unethical leaders. They believed in an activist press that protected facts and democracy. They knew from history what happens when an executive uses the press for their own benefit.

    While I support groups like “The Conversation”, who wrote this article, in a transparent, factual way to try and counter the flawed presentation of news from places like Fox and CNN, I ultimately have to wonder if we are past a point of that being helpful given the digging in we are seeing from Trump supporters. I have to wonder if he hasn’t succeeded so well at weaponizing his rhetoric against the press that they will only trust his propaganda and sources that use their time to praise him (Fox, InfoWars, etc).

    • Comment November 20, 2018 at 4:57 pm

      To be fair, “the press” have become so corrupt that we can’t really blame trump for using the strategy of pointing that out as an advantage. “The press” have brought it on themselves. It’s actually just a symptom of an entire system that’s deeply deeply corrupt. And it was that way long before trump. And I’m only really talking about large national media outlets and huge networks of smaller ones owned by a tiny set of individuals. Essentially a lot of it is ‘fake news’. So much is just driven by agendas. Nearly everything’s an agenda anymore…..

      • bikeandfish November 20, 2018 at 7:19 pm

        Very little is “fake news” but there is a lot of opinion influencing reporting. But most of that is obvious: CNN, Fox, HuffPost, Breitbart, etc. We should be teaching media literacy in our schools more. But we’ve always had that type of media as do most countries. Its nothing new other than the scale of profit given corporate mergers.

        Sadly Trump’s rhetoric has thrown many high quality sources under the bus that are respectable sources. Most journalist are doing a great job, even if we don’t like the subjects they cover.

        But if we are being honest than much of this rests on citizens as well as the media. We created the bubbles they cater to.

        • Redbud November 20, 2018 at 10:34 pm

          Wow, very delusional to think that the media doesn’t make fake news. CNN is especially bad. Again, this news article was indeed anti-trump, and tried to turn this into a racial issue when it’s completely unnecessary.

          • bikeandfish November 21, 2018 at 9:57 am

            So reporting demographic facts is now too “racial”?

            And no, most media don’t report “fake news”. Fake news is a real problem but its normally on social media, etc. Trump has exploited a growing distrust in media to conflate opinion sources (always been there) with “fake news”. He knows most people lack the media literacy to know the difference. He also knows having a base that distrusts the media ultimately plays in his favor. Its a win-win strategy for him especially given how much he blatantly lies.

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