Mises Institute, January 19, 2021
The Washington Post is outraged that Donald Trump has sullied one of Washington’s most hallowed honors—Presidential Medals of Freedom. After the White House announced plans to bestow the medals on two Republican members of Congress and a football coach, the Post thundered that “Trump just underlines his own unworthiness when he makes a mockery of the Medal of Freedom….This president cannot be trusted to hand out medals.”
The Post editorial concluded with the obligatory uplift of the season: “Thankfully, the Oval Office will soon be occupied by a president—himself a rightful recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom—who understands and will honor the traditions of the presidency.” Did Biden receive the Medal of Freedom for taking the lead in enacting the 1994 crime bill, which the New York Times reported helped spawn “the explosion of the prison population”? Did Biden receive the medal for helping Barack Obama win reelection in 2012 by telling black voters that Mitt Romney would “put you all back in chains”? No, he simply received it for being Obama’s vice president, pocketing the award shortly before Obama left office. But from the Post’s view, the fact that Biden received a Washington honorific that included the name “freedom” proves that he is honorable.
Presidential Medals of Freedom have long been far more squalid than the Washington Post recognizes—in part because the Post cheered the wars that spurred many of the most tainted awards.
President Lyndon Johnson distributed a bucket of Medals of Freedom to his Vietnam War architects and enablers, including Ellsworth Bunker, Dean Acheson, Dean Rusk, Clark Clifford, Averell Harriman, Cyrus Vance, Walt Rostow, and McGeorge Bundy. When he gave the award to Defense secretary Robert McNamara, he declared, “You have understood that while freedom depends on strength, strength itself depends on the determination of free people.” In reality, Johnson treasured McNamara for his ability to help deceive Americans about how the US was failing in Vietnam. McNamara’s lies helped vastly expand an unnecessary conflict and cost more than a million American and Vietnamese lives. The Washington Post editorial page didn’t complain about those awards, because the Post avidly supported that war. (After exiting the Pentagon, McNamara joined the Post’s board of directors.)
President Richard Nixon inherited the Vietnam War and expanded and intensified US bombing of Indochina. Nixon gave Medals of Freedom to Pentagon chief Melvin Laird (who helped shroud the war’s continuing failure) and his secretary of state, William Rogers. President Gerald Ford gave the Medal of Freedom to his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld—two persons notorious for tarnishing the honor of the United States in foreign affairs. The Post didn’t denounce the Medal of Freedom for Kissinger; instead, they made the Great Deceiver a columnist.
President George H.W. Bush blanketed Medals of Freedom on top officials involved with the first Gulf War, including Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, James Baker, Dick Cheney, and Brent Scowcroft. The Post didn’t complain about those awards, because that was another war that the Post editorial page whooped up all the way.
The war on terror made Presidential Medals of Freedom even more shameless. Retired colonel Andrew Bacevich observed, “After 9/11, the Medal of Freedom went from being irrelevant to somewhere between whimsical and fraudulent. Any correlation with freedom as such, never more than tenuous in the first place, dissolved altogether.” After he deceived America into supporting an attack on Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush conferred Medals of Freedom on his Iraq war team, including CIA chief George “Slam Dunk” Tenet, Iraq viceroy Paul Bremer, General Peter Pace, General Richard Myers, and General Tommy Franks, as well as prowar foreign lackeys such as Australian former prime minister John Howard and British former prime minister Tony Blair. The Post was outraged, because—no, wait, the Post editorial page thunderously supported that war, too.
Perhaps because Trump did not start any disastrous wars which he had to paper over with awards to failed generals, he has distributed much fewer Medals of Freedom than other recent presidents. Sports figures were among the most notable recipients, including Jerry West, Tiger Woods, Lou Holtz, and Gary Player. Like prior presidents, Trump gave the award to some of his political allies and supporters, including Representative Jim Jordan, Representative Devin Nunes, and Rush Limbaugh.
A long series of American presidents could not have done so much to trample our rights and liberties and to wreak havoc around the globe without the aid of people with neither scruples nor decency. Medals of Freedom are one of the cheapest ways for rulers to reward their lackeys. The names of many of the medal recipients look like confirmation of the famous passage from Friedrich Hayek’s chapter in The Road to Serfdom “Why the Worst Get on Top”:
Since it is the supreme leader who alone determines the ends, his instruments must have no moral convictions of their own. They must, above all, be unreservedly committed to the person of the leader; but next to this the most important thing is that they should be completely unprincipled and literally capable of everything. They must have no ideals of their own which they want to realize; no ideas about right or wrong which might interfere with the intentions of the leader….The only tastes which are satisfied are the taste for power as such and the pleasure of being obeyed and of being part of a well-functioning and immensely powerful machine to which everything else must give way.
Except for Kissinger, of course.
Presidential Medals of Freedom encourage Americans to view their personal freedom as the result of government intervention—if not as a bequest from the commander in chief. Ironically, the individual who poses the greatest potential threat to freedom has sole discretion to designate the purported best friends of freedom. The media usually provides gushing coverage of the award ceremonies, never mentioning that the arbitrary power of the Supreme Leader was why the Founding Fathers fought a revolution.
The Post editorial page was correct when it declared, “This president cannot be trusted to hand out medals.” But if Biden starts a war and scatters Presidential Medals of Freedom like cluster bombs on the war makers, the Post will be cheering all the way. In reality, no president can be trusted to designate the true champions of freedom. At a minimum, Presidential Medals of Freedom should be suspended until presidents cease acting like czars or elective dictators. If that beneficent reform occurs…don’t wait up for the next award ceremony.