Medal of Freedom Honorees: An Election Year Medley

Medal of Freedom Honorees: An Election Year Medley

By Alexis Simendinger - May 30, 2012

Bob Dylan wore formal attire Tuesday while accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom along with nearly a dozen other recipients. His business suit, roomy for his slight frame, was coal black and decorated with Western-style buckles on the chest pockets. The 71-year-old wore a crisp white shirt and a bow tie. But what captured President Obama's attention and that of a VIP audience packing the East Room of the White House were the aviator sunglasses Dylan wore indoors. Impenetrable.

“Come on, Bob,” the president said with a tone of amusement as Dylan sat, glued to his seat, as his name was called to approach the stage. The final honoree among an eclectic gathering of recipients, Dylan had just accepted a handshake from a fellow awardee, former Justice John Paul Stevens, who had returned to his seat and warmly reached out to the musical icon.

Obama, who was just a year old when “Blowin’ in the Wind” was released, finally draped a glittering medal around Robert Allen Zimmerman’s neck (the alphabet made Dylan a closing act). But enigmatic is how the artist remained -- even when the president intoned, “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music,” adding, “I am a really big fan.”

When Dylan returned to his seat next to Pat Summitt, the University of Tennessee’s legendary basketball coach, who is coping with Alzheimer’s, Summitt spontaneously reached over and patted Dylan approvingly on the knee. It was a gesture of warmth and camaraderie between two people who might never have been knee-to-knee, if not for a shared afternoon accepting the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Best-selling writer Toni Morrison, grinning broadly, appeared completely at home as Obama called her name Tuesday. At 81, she is a Pulitzer Prize winner, the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize, a teacher, and a big personality. She offered a cheerful admonition as the president approached her with her medal. “Watch my hair!” she said.

John Glenn’s red-haired grandson and the grandson’s wife waited patiently, their camera moving back and forth, until the 90-year-old astronaut-turned-Ohio-senator navigated two steps to the president’s side. To them, grandpa is the guy who mixes out-of-this-world root beer floats, they confided to a reporter seated near them. To everyone else, Glenn is a former Marine test pilot, the first American to orbit the Earth, the oldest person to fly into space, and a candidate in 1984 for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Civil rights advocate Dolores Huerta, who with Cesar Chavez founded the organization that later became the United Farmworkers of America, accepted a medal for championing workers’ rights. Huerta’s friends and relatives could be seen talking animatedly with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis at the end of the ceremony.

Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under President Clinton, also received a medal large enough to rival her famously grand brooches. Former first lady and former Sen. Hillary Clinton, now one of Albright’s successors, applauded with gusto from the front row.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, who will be feted at the White House with a special dinner in June, will pick up his Medal of Freedom in a few weeks, Obama said.

Other recipients included civil right attorney and leader John Doar; epidemiologist William Foege, who helped stamp out smallpox around the world; Gordon Hirabayashi, who defied forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and died in January (his wife accepted his award); Jan Karski, now deceased, an officer in the Polish underground who apprised President Roosevelt of the Nazi death camps he had seen; and Juliette Gordon Low, who founded the Girl Scouts in 1912 and died in 1927.

“What sets these men and women apart is the incredible impact they have had on so many people,” Obama explained. “Not in short, blinding bursts, but steadily, over the course of a lifetime.”

Presidents enjoy wide leeway to celebrate impactful lives and hand out commendations and awards as it suits. In an election year, no one should be surprised to find a Democrat saluting Hispanic, Jewish, African-American, and Title IX women at the White House, plus an important leader in Israel’s government, along with a hero from battleground state Ohio.

And to appeal to the baby boomer generation across party lines, there was that mercurial, revered voice of the 1960s, shielding his eyes from the light. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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