Saturday, July 11, 2020
July 11-12, 2020: Presidential Medals of Freedom: Rush Limbaugh
[On July 6th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order establishing the Presidential Medal of Freedom went into effect. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of the Medals recipients, leading up to this weekend post on the most recent, most controversial honoree yet.]
On the more obvious and more subtle ways that the most recent recognition broke tradition.
Presidential Medals of Freedom have certainly been awarded to overtly political figures before, including former President Lyndon Johnson and presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey (both honored by Jimmy Carter in 1980), presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (by Ronald Reagan in 1986), future Vice President Dick Cheney (by George H.W. Bush in 1991), former President Ronald Reagan (by Bush in 1993), former President George H.W. Bush (by Barack Obama in 2011), former President Bill Clinton (by Obama in 2013), and Vice President Joe Biden (by Obama in 2017). Indeed, there have been enough of those kinds of political recipients (often understandably tied to the presidency and presidential administrations) that they really constitute their own category alongside the others about which I’ve written this week (although it’s worth noting that such political honorees were not present in the first couple decades of medals and have emerged as a category in the last forty years). So it would be inaccurate to argue that President Trump’s awarding of a Presidential Medal of Freedom during his February 2020 State of the Union Address to conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh in and of itself comprised something new or different.
But Limbaugh’s medal did still break from tradition in a couple troubling ways. For one thing, prior Presidential Medals for media figures had gone to journalists whose work and voices were intended for and benefited all Americans: from Edward R. Murrow in 1964 to Norman Rockwell in 1977 to Walter Cronkite in 1981 to Clare Boothe Luce in 1983. The one partial exception to that trend was George H.W. Bush’s medal for National Review founder William F. Buckley in 1991; but whether we agree with this designation or not (and I mostly don’t), Buckley was seen at the time, as he still largely is, as a more serious and mainstream figure than Limbaugh. And when it comes to symbolic statements like presidential medals, such perceptions and narratives matter a great deal; that is, while Buckley’s role and status might be debatable, there is no doubt whatsoever that Rush Limbaugh is a far-right pundit, one who defines his journalistic purpose as advancing that position and (most of all) defeating his perceived adversaries at all costs (including, if not especially, with smears and lies). To recognize someone like that with a Presidential Medal of Freedom is to politicize and polemicize this national honor as fully as Trump has every other aspect of the presidency.
Limbaugh’s was also the first Presidential Medal of Freedom, out of the hundreds that have been awarded, to be presented at a State of the Union Address. That might seem like a very insignificant change, and it is important not to be swayed by the idea of tradition for its own sake; where and how a medal is presented shouldn’t necessarily be beholden to the past. In this case it is impossible to separate my prior point from this one; that is, Trump honoring this especially partisan and problematic figure is entirely tied to his concurrent treatment of the State of the Union as an occasion for demagoguery of which Limbaugh would undoubtedly be proud. But even if this State of the Union medal had been presented to a more universally beloved figure (like Elvis Presley, one of Trump’s first recipients as I mentioned yesterday), awarding it in that context would still mean turning this highest civilian honor into a reality show moment, and thus making it wholly about the moment (and the president awarding it), rather than the honored figure. That’s a symbolic issue—but when it comes to one of our most prominent national symbolic customs, such issues become very meaningful indeed.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other honorees you’d highlight?