Today, President Barack Obama honors 13 individuals with the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. The Medal of Freedom recognizes those individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Among this year’s recipients are former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, astronaut John Glenn, basketball coach Pat Summitt and rock legend Bob Dylan.
We dug into our archives here at the Miller Center and found insider knowledge of the Medal of Freedom clearance and nominating process. In January 2002, the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program interviewed Aram Bakshian, Jr. for the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project. Bakshian served for three years in the Reagan White House, first in the Office of Public Liaison, then as Director of Speechwriting from 1981 to 1982. During the interview, Bakshian discussed the clearance and nominating process for the Medal of Freedom for which he was responsible during his tenure in the Reagan White House. Below are excerpts from the interview.
It’s an interesting thing because it’s the highest civilian honor. I took it very seriously. But at times there are going to be people who have been big contributors or something, who are really pushing for it and it’s important that somebody be a gatekeeper for that. In fact, after I left, I realized that—I’m not going to name any names—but one or two people, who had spent a lot of money and been humanitarians but not all that distinguished, but also had spent a lot of money contributing to candidacies, finally got in. These were people I’d managed to fend off while I was there, but then they crept through. Also people who had had some accomplishments but I didn’t think were quite up to the Medal of Freedom but who later on got in.
Conversely, people ask me, what do I think my greatest achievement was in my years working at the White House? And I always say, I finally got Eubie Blake the Medal of Freedom. Eubie Blake, the old ragtime piano player and composer who lived to be 100. I had first suggested him when I had no direct connection with the Medal of Freedom, when I was a speechwriter in the Ford administration…When I came back to the White House in ’81 and was in charge of the Medal of Freedom, the first thing I did was put him on the list and sure enough he got it in the first round of presentations. I guess he’s the only person they gave it to who was the son of slaves, and now the only person they’ll ever be able to give it to, because there wouldn’t be anyone like that left now.
Bakshian noted that, at least during his tenure, there were no formal criteria for honorees.
…They have to be of outstanding distinction, Americans who have contributed richly to the national life in some way. So usually it’s public life, the arts or humanities, humanitarianism, and always a few performing arts or composers because those are the big names.
Bakshian also discussed the process for nominations in the Reagan administration.
… I kept a file, the correspondence would always be directed to me. You’d have people writing in, recommending someone, sometimes obviously a ginned up campaign, other times genuine—one of the saddest I remember was the late Irving Berlin, who was already 90-something years old at that point. I received numerous letters from elderly people wanting him to get the Medal of Freedom, and I had to write back and inform them that he had been given the Medal of Freedom 25 or 30 years before by President [Harry] Truman or President Eisenhower.
… What I did was keep a dossier of all recommendations. You would have the once or twice a year, as I said, maybe five, six person presentation, and then occasionally there would be a case of individual merit, or word would come that somebody might not be around much longer so it was now or never.
…Usually what you would do—if I recall, it’s been a while now—you would send them a long list to choose from months before the next Medal of Freedom presentation. And it was flexible, it wasn’t like the fiscal year and you had to do it at a set date. It would probably end up being, say, five or six people. But you would give them, so there was some choice, maybe ten or twelve names with detailed descriptions. It always ended up being people I thought were good choices.
…Well the preliminary went to the Chief of Staff or ordinarily [White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael] Deaver with names and bios. What I don’t recall off the top of my head was whether at that point Deaver made the cut and sent just a proposed final list to the President, or whether the larger list went to the President. I think Deaver made the cut and it went to the President. So that if the President had someone in mind could add them, but that didn’t happen during that period. Frankly, it’s not the sort of thing that is uppermost on presidential minds ordinarily, unless some old friend has called up or called Nancy and said, Don’t you think that so-and-so should get the Medal of Freedom?