[On July 6th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order establishing the Presidential Medal of Freedom went into effect. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of the Medals recipients, leading up to a weekend post on the most recent, most controversial honoree yet.]
On the Medal of Freedom as a unifying occasion or a partisan instrument.
First things first: I’m on record, in this space and most everywhere else, as Bruce Springsteen’s biggest fan; and I’m also on record in this space as significantly less of a fan of Elvis Presley. On that latter point, Bruce and I disagree very fully—he famously jumped the wall at Graceland while on tour in 1976 in an attempt to meet his idol; and Bruce has recorded no less than (and probably many more than) a dozen covers of songs by the artist he has called one of his greatest inspirations since he first saw Elvis’s controversial performance on the Ed Sullivan show. I promise (Bruce, myself, you all) to keep an open mind and keep giving Elvis the old college try, but in any case this post isn’t about the two artists themselves; it’s about how Barack Obama’s 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom tribute to Bruce Springsteen and Donald Trump’s 2018 Medal tribute to Elvis Presley (posthumously, of course) reveal (as does most everything else about the two presidents) two distinct and fundamentally opposed visions of what something like the Medal of Freedom means, for the president and for the nation.
At the November 2016 ceremony honoring Springsteen and 20 others, President Obama said of the Medal that “it’s a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better….These 21 individuals have helped push America forward, inspiring millions of people around the world along the way.” About Springsteen more specifically, he added, “The stories he has told, in lyrics and epic live concert performances, have helped shape American music and have challenged us to realize the American dream.” As has so often been the case with Obama’s speeches and public statements, his use of first-person plural pronouns here is crucial, establishing the medal and occasion as a collective expression and reflection (and amplification) of that communal experience and identity. That choice purposefully downplays both Obama’s own individual action (despite of course being the president giving the Presidential Medal) and the larger 21st century narrative of a divided America whose citizens might or might not all celebrate such figures (while it boggles my mind that anyone wouldn’t celebrate Bruce, there’s no doubt he has become increasingly linked to progressive politicians and causes).
While Elvis Presley has at times been associated with the (overstated, I’ve argued) narrative of white artists capitalizing on black music, it would nonetheless be easy and appropriate to present him with a posthumous Medal of Freedom in much the same unifying terms. But it will come as no surprise to anyone who has been alive and awake for the last five years that President Trump did not talk about Elvis in that way shortly after awarding him that November 2018 medal. In contrast with Obama’s “we,” Trump linked Elvis to himself, claiming that he didn’t want to sound “very conceited” but noting that, “other than the blond hair, when I was growing up they said I looked like Elvis. Can you believe it? I always considered that a great compliment.” And he went on to connect Elvis to one of the moment’s most divisive issues, that of the so-called “migrant caravan” making its way to the Mexican American border; “They're not going to put in Elvis in there,” he stated, going out of his way to differentiate the iconic American artist from a community he sought time and again to define as a foreign threat to the U.S. There are literally countless ways we could trace the changes and gaps between 2016/Obama and 2018/Trump, but their frames for these two rock ‘n roll medals do the trick nicely.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other honorees you’d highlight?
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