By Paolo von Schirach
November 20, 2013
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama was a most gracious host at the White House today. The President, on behalf of the Nation, honored 16 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest recognition to civilians whose lives are inspiring examples of achievement in a variety of fields. The award was instituted by President John Kennedy.
Not just for insiders
And this is what makes America rather unique. The recipients of the Medal of Freedom are not chosen only from within a predictable group of notables. Yes, of course the notables were there, starting with former President Bill Clinton. Alright, so you have a sitting President honoring a former President from the same party. And then a Medal awarded posthumously to Senator Daniel Inouye, a Japanese American war veteran who served for decades as a Democratic Senator from Hawaii. And to show political balance Obama also gave the Medal to former Republican Senator Richard Lugar from Indiana.
Admittedly these three are insiders, one way or the other part of the Washington Political Club, the Presidential Club in the case of Bill Clinton.
From jazz to economics and country music
But then there are all the others. And they include baseball legend Ernie Banks, an African American; French born pioneer psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, a holocaust survivor; country music icon Loretta Lynn; Cuban born jazz player Arturo Sandoval; Mexican born climate scientist Mario Molina; former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith; Ben Bradlee who was Editor of the Washington Post at the time of the Watergate scandal, TV entertainer Oprah Winfrey, Gloria Steinem, the feminist trail blazer, and a few others. Sure enough, some of them are well-known celebrities, some of them (Winfrey) openly Obama supporters. But most of them come from all over and they are honored for good reasons. In other words, this event is not about politics.
And it is important to note that a few of these honorees came to America as immigrants, (Molina, Kahneman, Sandoval), while several others were born in poverty, or at least they had to endure significant hardships, and that includes singer Loretta Lynn and former President Clinton.
A simple ceremony
May be I am a bit sentimental. But it is rather moving to watch a simple, yet dignified ceremony in which the President of the United States acts as spiritual rather than political leader. (In the ancient Roman tradition, today Obama was America’s “Pontifex Maximus“). On behalf of the Nation he recognizes meritorious Americans who have done different things in different fields: economics, science, music, sports, civil rights and the law.
And President Obama has an instinctively good way of doing all this. His speech highlighting the achievements of the 16 honorees was simple, short and yet effective. His demeanor solemn but not pompous. He shook hands, he hugged, he kissed the Medal recipients, but without any exaggeration or feigned deference.
This republic celebrates virtue
This ceremony is as good as it is uplifting. It is about upholding a Republican tradition that praises civic virtues. It so happens that right now we are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the bloody Battle of Gettysburg, a pivotal Northern victory in the American Civil War that according to Lincoln’s words in his memorable Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863) signaled that republican government would “not perish from the earth“. And this November also marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. It was President Kennedy who instituted the Medal of Freedom.
And so, at a glance, America: its republican roots founded on the belief that people are mature enough to govern themselves, its desire to honor good citizens –whatever their background, race or ethnicity– in a public way, and a dignified President who acts graciously as host.
A good country
As I was watching the event on TV, it really helped me reaffirm my beliefs in the fundamental goodness of this country and in the values that are upheld in ceremonies like this one.
Sure there is politics in all this, (honoring women, African-Americans, Hispanics, gays and lesbians), but not that much. This is about celebrating what is best in this country.