Though proximity to power is its own reward, rulers have long recognized the benefit of distributing trinkets to potential sycophants. From medieval times onwards, the English king was seen as the “fount of all honors.” The British government created endless ribbons, orders, and titles to attach individuals to the crown. Cash was sometimes necessary to clinch the allegiance. Samuel Johnson famously defined an honorary government pension as “pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.”
The U.S. government long avoided the temptation to distribute nonmilitary awards by the bucket. However, in 1963 John F. Kennedy broadened a Medals of Freedom program begun by Harry Truman, specifying that the awards would be given for “exceptionally meritorious contributions to the security or national interest of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Though the medal routinely went to politicians and government officials, giving it to artists, writers, movie stars, and others boosted its cachet.
Presidents involved in failed wars tend to distribute far more Medals of Freedom to generals and their political appointees. The precise ratio of presidential medals to military quagmires varies from administration to administration.
Lyndon Johnson distributed a hogshead 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 publicly persuasively deny that the Vietnam War was failing. McNamara’s lies helped vastly expand an unnecessary conflict and cost more than a million American and Vietnamese lives.
Richard Nixon inherited the Vietnam War and expanded and intensified U.S. bombing of Indochina. Nixon gave the award to John Paul Vann (posthumously, for his civilian government work in Vietnam), Secretary of State William Rogers, and Pentagon chief Melvin Laird.
Gerald Ford gave the Medal of Freedom to his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld — two persons who have done the most to blacken the honor of the United States in foreign affairs. To prove his bipartisan bona fides, Ford also gave the award to Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson.
When Jimmy Carter gave the award posthumously to Lyndon Johnson, he declared, “Lyndon B. Johnson cared deeply about our country, its citizens, and the condition of their lives. He knew well how to translate concern into action, and action into a national agenda…. We are a greater society because President Johnson lived among us and worked for us.”
Carter whitewashed Johnson’s horrendous record on civil liberties and omitted any mention of the scores of thousands of young Americans who died pointlessly in Vietnam. After his reelection campaign had crashed and burned, Carter tossed out a bucket of awards to his cabinet members including Defense Secretary Harold Brown, Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Democratic National Committee chairman Bob Strauss.
Ronald Reagan gave Medals of Freedom to Sen. Jacob Javits, Sen. Howard Baker, Sen. Barry Goldwater, Commerce Secretary Malcom Baldridge, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and Secretary of State George Schultz.
George H.W. Bush blanketed Medals of Freedom on top officials involved with the Gulf War, including Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, James Baker, Richard Cheney, and Brent Scowcroft. Though the results of the war were a debacle for the Middle East and the Iraqi people, at least the medal award ceremony looked victorious.
Bill Clinton gave the award to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell; the mastermind of the Kosovo war debacle, Wesley Clark; and Sens. Robert Dole and Lloyd Bentsen — neither of whom had ever broke into a sweat over the government’s violations of Americans’ liberty. He also gave the honorific to Ford, who had been renowned as J. Edgar Hoover’s most reliable tool when Ford served in Congress. To keep up the storyline that all presidents are by definition champions of freedom, Clinton also gave the award to Jimmy Carter.
George W. Bush gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to his Iraq viceroy, Paul Bremer; his “slam dunk” CIA chief, George Tenet; Gen. Tommy Franks; Gen. Richard Myers; Gen. Peter Pace; and foreign lackeys such as Australian former prime minister John Howard and British former prime minister Tony Blair. Bush gave a medal to his ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, whom he called “America’s Lawrence of Arabia.” (Things have worked out much better for Iraq since Crocker left.) For good measure Bush also gave the award to Rep. Tom Lantos, one of the most vituperative warmongers in modern American history.
Barack Obama distributed Medals of Freedom to Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. Dick Lugar, Sen. Daniel Inouye, Sen. John Glenn, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (the famous apologist for the Iraqi sanctions, regardless of how many hundreds of thousands of children perished). Obama also gave the medal to George H.W. Bush — a man who got elected president in 1988 while deriding his Democratic opponent as a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union.
It is not surprising that Obama also gave the Medal of Freedom to Clinton. But Clinton had done more than any president of the latter 20th century to place the federal government above all laws — above the Constitution — and beyond any effective restraint. Clinton ignored federal and Supreme Court decisions limiting his power and constantly exploited and expanded the dictatorial potential of the U.S. presidency. But that was not mentioned at the award ceremony. Instead, Obama declared, “I’m grateful, Bill, for the advice and counsel you offered me on and off the golf course, and most importantly for your lifesaving work around the world, which represents the very best in America.”
Men without principle
Presidents routinely give the awards to those who vindicated or sanctified their own policies. For instance, George W. Bush gave Medals of Freedom to Irving Kristol, Paul Johnson, Norman Podhoretz, William Safire, and Nathan Sharansky. The majority of intellectuals and political writers who receive Medals of Freedom have been defenders of Leviathan — i.e., defenders of the rights of politicians over the rest of humanity.
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 person who poses the greatest potential threat to freedom has sole discretion to designate the best friends of freedom.
But the news coverage of the award ceremonies almost never mentions that the Supreme Leader’s arbitrary power was what the Founding Fathers fought a war to severely restrict. It is difficult to look at the names of some of the Medal of Freedom winners without being reminded 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. There is thus in the positions of power little to attract those who hold moral beliefs of the kind which in the past have guided the European peoples, little which could compensate for the distastefulness of many of the particular tasks…. 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.
A long series of American presidents could not have done so much to trample our rights and liberties and to wreak havoc around the world if they had not found so many persons willing to carry out any order received and to conspire with the president to delude the American people.
It is a sign of the political illiteracy of our time that Medals of Freedom distributed by presidents who act like czars are not a source of pervasive ridicule. On the other hand, the same media talking heads who hail Medal of Freedom awards also assure listeners that Americans are governing themselves because they were permitted a choice of whether Obama or Mitt Romney would trample the Constitution.
It will be a sign of the nation’s political awakening when presidential Medals of Freedom stir up as much popular suspicion as political parties labeling their donors as benefactors of humanity. In the same way that presidents cannot be trusted to define freedom, they cannot be trusted to designate who are the true champions of freedom.
This article was originally published in the March 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.