Why is Obama awarding Oprah Winfrey the Medal of Freedom?

The list of 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom winners was released Thursday. There was an Illinois trend because, well, the president alone is the decider.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File
Oprah Winfrey attends an event for the Oprah Winfrey Network in Pasadena, Calif., this year. She was named a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Thursday.

Broadcast host/entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey is getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

So are women’s rights advocate Gloria Steinem, ex-Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Cub great Ernie Banks. Oh, and former President Bill Clinton. Can’t forget him.

They’re among the most famous names on the just-released list of 2013 Medal of Freedom winners. Established in its current form by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award bestowed by the US government.

“This year’s honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world,” said President Obama in a statement.

US chief executives have hung the Medal of Freedom ribbon around the necks of some of the greatest names in modern US cultural and political history, as well as a scattering of eminent foreign leaders.

But it’s no disrespect to the winners’ credentials to note that the process for deciding who gets one is not exactly as rigorous as that involved with, say, winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Under the Executive Order signed by JFK, those eligible for the Medal of Freedom include anyone who has made a significant contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant private or public endeavors.

In other words, pretty much anybody who has done anything of enough interest to come to a US president’s attention.

And, as we’ve noted before, that’s one of the most interesting aspects of the medal award process: the president alone is the decider. 

“Honorees are selected solely by the President, either acting on his own initiative or based on recommendations made to him. As such, recipients tend to reflect the personal and political interests of the President,” wrote Barbara Salazar Torreon of the Congressional Research Service in a 2004 report on the subject.

Thus sports stars such as Atlanta Braves slugger Henry Aaron (2002) have won the honor, along with religious figures such as Billy Graham (1983) and every president from JFK through Clinton, with the exception of Richard Nixon.

Let’s look at Oprah, one of the richest and most influential women in the world, to see how this process works.

The administration says the TV star won her Medal in part because of her extensive philanthropic work with young women, in both Africa and the US.  

But as The Chicago Tribune notes, there’s also something of an Illinois theme to this year’s medal list, of which Oprah is a part. She honed her style and created the “The Oprah Winfrey Show” after moving to Chicago to work for WLS in 1983.

Ernie Banks was a beloved Cub icon on the field. Another 2013 honoree, Cordy Tindell Vivian, was a key figure in the civil rights movement in Illinois and a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Do we have to add that Obama was an Illinois lawmaker?

Oprah was an early and enthusiastic backer of Obama for president and has contributed lots of cash to his campaigns.

She’s also a television pioneer who earned a billion dollars due to her own business acumen and inspired millions of viewers with her personal story and interviewing style, so it’s not as if it’s a stretch for her to win a Freedom medal.

Not that she or a certain former Oval Office occupant need the publicity, complained some right-leaning blogs.

“Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey have gone unrecognized and underappreciated for far too long,” said the conservative media site Twitchy.

Obama will award a total of 16 Medals of Freedom at a White House ceremony later this year. Other winners include former US Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii (posthumous), astronaut Sally Ride (posthumous), former Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (posthumous), musician Loretta Lynn, former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, musician Arturo Sandoval, and Judge Patricia Wald.

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