Like so much else, the prestige of the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, dimmed slightly under the second President Bush. Indeed, the award became markedly political, with notable recipients including anti-abortion activist Oscar Elías Biscet; notorious abusers of human rights; now-repentant former CIA Director George Tenet, disgraced for misrepresenting intelligence on WMDs in Iraq; and Tony Blair who, although a good man, received the medal for the one blemish on his otherwise noble career, his support for the Iraq War. The last two make the award under Bush seem more like an “attaboy” for blindly enabling his whims, despite all evidence and logic to the contrary — hardly an “especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States,” to say nothing of “world peace” — or, in the case of General Peter Pace (Ret.), an apology. “Sorry for firing you because you disagreed with me!”
But if change is slow to come elsewhere in American politics, President Obama proved last week that, in areas where he exerts exclusive control, his progressive credentials are unimpeachable, and redemption is swift. The list of 2009 recipients of the Medal reads like a who’s-who on the moderate left: Sandra Day O’Connor, Ted Kennedy, and Harvey Milk, with pioneers like Muhammad Yunus and Stephen Hawking thrown in for good measure. Those who, like me, fear for America’s continued scientific hegemony can take heart at the last pick.
One note on Sandra Day O’Connor, too: yes, it’s true. She cast the tiebreaking vote in Bush v. Gore, and originally identified as a Republican. But she did the same in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which unequivocally saved the right to choose, and has since undergone a political transformation that’s a veritable microcosm of the continuing shift in American politics. She came to the GOP for small-government fiscal conservatism, and left when the new generation of Republicans traded any semblance of fiscal responsibility for its latest experiment with anti-intellectualism, which she (correctly) saw as a threat to Americans’ respect for the judiciary and the law itself.
And in any event, she’s a personal hero of mine, who deserves much more than this medal for the trouble she’s endured.
We can grind our teeth and complain that President Obama has yet to deliver on so much of his social agenda. But he’s still got three years to go, and deserves acknowledgement when he hits one out of the park. Congratulations to the President and all the recipients.