Who else should win the Presidential Medal of Freedom?
I can’t imagine being president of the United States is very much fun. Lyndon Johnson, a particularly aggrieved occupant of that office, said it best. Twice.
“Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There's nothing to do but to stand there and take it.” And: “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: “President Can't Swim.’” Double ouch.
There’s some pleasure in the presidency though — riding in Air Force One and the White House movie theater come to mind — but I think the coolest part has to be awarding the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
President Biden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — considered by the White House to be the nation’s “highest civilian honor” — to 17 athletes, government leaders, business leaders, and philanthropists on Thursday.
Among the recipients were Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Team USA soccer star Megan Rapinoe, and Sandra Lindsay, the New York nurse who was the first American to receive the COVID vaccine outside of clinical trials.
Other recipients include two characters who’ve played critical roles in the business world but have since passed: Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor organization, and Apple Co-Founder Steve Jobs, who received the award posthumously for “transforming the computer, music, film and wireless industries.”
I’ve long thought Jobs in particular deserved the PMOF. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is an award given by the president “for 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.” Jobs indisputably matches that third criterion. In the past, I’ve compared Jobs to Thomas Edison a “once-in a century innovator.”And for good reason. Despite his personal shortcomings, his products have made an unrivaled mark on the world. Consider that Apple has sold 2.2 billion iPhones to date.
You may not know that much about the PMOF. Even though it's a huge deal, it’s a bit under the radar, so let me tell you about it. First of all, if you have never seen it, the medal itself is quite eye-catching. Pretty cool, right?
Now let’s look at who is eligible to receive the award, which is actually rather loosey-goosey. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is an award given by the president “for 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.”
“The decision is the president’s alone. They don’t need to consult with anybody,” says E. Fletcher McClellan, a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, whose research focuses in part on the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “I know there's mention of civilian boards and things like that. [But] this has become more of an in-house White House staffing project.”
It’s typically given to Americans, like Joe DiMaggio, Maya Angelou and Henry Kissinger, but can be given to foreigners such as Angela Merkel, Desmond Tutu. and Stephen Hawking. And yes, many businesspeople have received PMOFs (more on that below).
The award was established by President Kennedy though he was assassinated before he could confer any. Tragically then, Kennedy was in the first class of recipients given by LBJ (who was later bestowed with the award posthumously by Jimmy Carter).
There are two levels of the PMOF, regular and with distinction — with the latter having only been given to 27 or about 4% of the 654 awardees since 1963. You can even win twice, though only two people have; Colin Powell once with distinction. The other double winner for some ungodly reason was Ellsworth Bunker, the hawkish ambassador to South Vietnam from 1967 to 1973, both times with distinction even. (Talk about overkill.)
Some other PMOF facts: Every president since Kennedy has received a medal except Nixon, George W. Bush. and Barack Obama. You have to figure the latter two will be tabbed sooner rather than later. (As for Nixon, he could be like Pete Rose and the Baseball Hall of Fame, right?) Biden already got his btw, with distinction, from Obama while he was the vice president.
Five members of the Kennedy clan have been awarded PMOFs, while a sixth, Jackie Kennedy, was one of the very few to turn the award down — along with Bill Belichick and Dolly Parton, who has declined twice! Then there’s Bill Cosby, who won a medal in 2002. Later there was talk of rescinding it, but that didn’t appear to go anywhere.
And yes, besides politicians, actors, artists, athletes and scientists, a good number of businesspeople have been honored. (See if you can guess which president picked each one.) Warren Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates, Roger Penske, Arthur Laffer, Miriam Adelson, Alan Greenspan, Walter Wriston, Estee Lauder, Dave Thomas, Gordon Moore, Peter Drucker, John Kenneth Galbraith, James E. Burke, Edgar Bronfman, David Rockefeller, Lew Wasserman, James Rouse and Sam Walton. (Walton was in one of my favorite classes, 1992, along with Ella Fitzgerald, Ted Williams, Johnny Carson, Richard Petty, I.M. Pei and Audrey Hepburn.)
Some other business recipients are: David Packard, Ed DeBartolo, Justin Dart, An Wang, Walter Annenberg, Lil and DeWitt Wallace, Arthur Krock, and Walt Disney.
Historically the award has been fairly non-partisan. George W. Bush gave awards to Katharine Graham and Donna Shalala. Obama mostly did left-leaning awardees but also made awards to George H.W. Bush, Sandra Day O’Connor, Robert Gates, Richard Lugar and William Ruckelshaus. Trump, however, did not cross the aisle, awarding mostly to GOP politicians, supporters, and athletes.
So who would I pick if I were president? (Scary thought.) I have a million ideas for non-business people; Dionne Warwick, Joshua Bell, Michelle Kwan, Tommy Caldwell, Ellen Ochoa, Willie Nelson, Snoop, (maybe not Martha Stewart), Jennifer Doudna, Ringo, etc., but I want to focus a bit on businesspeople.
Outside Silicon Valley there are plenty of other candidates. How about Ken Chenault or Mary Barra? What about Charlie Munger? (Maybe too ornery.) Jamie Dimon or Ann Fudge? How about Herb Kelleher (posthumously) and his flyboy pal Gordon Bethune? There’s Howard Schultz, Dick Parsons, Ralph Lauren, Ted Turner, Paul Allen (posthumously), and Mike Bloomberg. (Who would you pick?)
I have an idea: How about a second one for Warren Buffett — this time with distinction. Too much? If Ellsworth Bunker can win two, why the heck not?
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer
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