Obama honors Presidential Medal of Freedom winners: Who's eligible?

Answer: Anybody who's accomplished anything the president of the United States likes. Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom to Bob Dylan, John Glenn, and 11 other recipients Tuesday.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Barack Obama awards a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom to astronaut and former US Senator John Glenn during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday.

What do Bob Dylan, Bob Dole, Warren Buffet, Earl Warren, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Jackie Robinson, and Jack Nicklaus have in common?

No, they’re not characters in the longest “walk into a bar” joke ever told. They are all recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award the United States government bestows.

President Obama handed out 13 of these coveted decorations in an East Room ceremony on May 29. The aforementioned Mr. Dylan was one of the recipients. As he and John Glenn, Toni Morrison, and other 2012 honorees bowed to have the spiffy white star hung around their necks, we got to thinking: Where does the Presidential Medal of Freedom come from, anyway? How does it compare to the Medal of Honor and other top US decorations? Why did Dylan wear sunglasses to Tuesday’s East Room investiture?

That last question is unanswerable by us. As to the rest we’re now in position to provide a little US Medals 101 education, courtesy of the always helpful work of Congressional Research Service scholars.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom was established by Harry S. Truman to reward World War II-connected activities. In 1945, the first awards were bestowed on four women who had shown conspicuous service and/or bravery, including Anna M. Rosenberg, a member of the War Manpower Commission, and Marie Louise Dissard, a leader of the French Resistance.

Throughout the late 1940s and early ‘50s the medal went to figures related to security or diplomacy. In 1963, however, President John F. Kennedy made a major change, establishing the award as we understand it today. Via an executive order, JFK expanded those eligible to include “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.”

In other words, pretty much anybody who’s accomplished anything the president of the US likes.

That’s the second interesting part of the Medal of Freedom equation: it is something the president alone decides.

“As such, recipients tend to reflect the personal and political interests of the President. The accomplishments of past recipients have been in wide-ranging fields, including public service, journalism, business, sports, and entertainment,” wrote Barbara Salazar Torreon of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in a 2004 report on the subject.

That’s how artist Andrew Wyeth (1963) can share an award with Red Sox slugger Ted Williams (1991), Pope John Paul II (2004), and Sen. Edward Kennedy (2009).

Presidents themselves often win the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At least, every president from JFK to George H.W. Bush has, as successors from their own party honor their brethren. (There is one exception – Richard Nixon.) Military figures can win it as well. World War II hero Army Gen. Omar Bradley received one in 1977. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf of Gulf War fame got his in 1991.

However, to be clear, the military has its own top award for heroism in battle. That’s the Medal of Honor, which was first presented in 1863. “It is the nation’s highest military honor, awarded for acts of personal bravery or self-sacrifice that are above and beyond the call of duty,” according to Torreon of CRS.

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