President Donald Trump awarded his 15th Presidential Medal of Freedom to conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh on Feb. 4.
This award was notable for two reasons. First, it was controversial because Limbaugh is a polarizing political figure. And second, this marked the first time that any president awarded a Medal of Freedom during a State of the Union address.
Typically, Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremonies occur once or twice per year and provide Americans with an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of various people who have made an important contribution to U.S. culture. Because the president selects recipients with total discretion – American or otherwise, living or dead – this award also says a lot about the president himself.
What achievements or contributions does the president consider important? What groups of people most easily win his favor? And how does he hope to shape his legacy, judging by the company that he chooses to keep?
To find out, we’ve analyzed every Presidential Medal of Freedom ever awarded, and the presidents who awarded them – including Trump.
What is the Presidential Medal of Freedom?
The award was established by President John F. Kennedy, in 1963, to recognize “any person who has made an 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.”
As a unilateral power of the executive branch, presidents have broad discretion to choose recipients. But presidents often use the award for political purposes – to gain positive media attention, shape their legacy or reward their supporters.
Our research shows that the politicization of the medal has increased over time. Before 1981, Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremonies were sporadic, and recognized only about five recipients at a time.
This changed when President Ronald Reagan – a media-savvy, former Hollywood actor – began hosting large ceremonies designed to maximize public attention. President Barack Obama has since raised the bar. In one ceremony in 2016, he awarded 20 medals to recipients including athletes like Michael Jordan and entertainers like Bruce Springsteen. In fact, Obama holds the record for awarding the most medals in total: 115. That’s about 14 per year, on average.
Who gets a medal?
Decisions about who gets a medal often depend on whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican, but this isn’t always the case. For instance, presidents from both parties often pick politicians and public servants.
Obama awarded his last Presidential Medal of Freedom to his vice president, Joe Biden.
President Trump has honored former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and conservative economist Arthur Laffer. Not surprisingly, these awards usually go to a president’s political allies.
We also see clear partisan differences. For instance, Democratic presidents are more likely to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to civil rights leaders, labor organizers and people of color. Republicans are more likely to bestow the medal on military leaders, white people and conservative editors and pundits.
In other words, presidents tend to award Presidential Medals of Freedom to members of their party’s key constituency groups.
President Trump’s picks
President Trump’s first round of medals was unusual in at least one respect: He waited 20 months to award them, longer than any other president. This is surprising for a president who enjoys commanding the media’s attention and exercising unilateral executive power.
Since that time, Trump has awarded the Medal of Freedom eight times – with each ceremony or occasion honoring a single recipient.
Trump’s selections differ markedly from his predecessors in that a majority of his recipients – eight out of 15 – have been athletes. In previous administrations, athletes constituted about 4% of all Medal of Freedom recipients.
And while Trump’s selections of Rush Limbaugh as well as GOP megadonor Miriam Adelson – also a doctor and philanthropist – have been controversial, he is hardly the first president to award the nation’s highest civilian honor to a prominent political supporter.
Obama, for one, awarded the medal to Oprah Winfrey – who gave him a key endorsement in the 2008 primaries. He also awarded it to Democratic activists such as Barbra Streisand and Bruce Springsteen.
But the sheer size and scope of Adelson’s political contributions – more than US$113 million in combination with her husband, Sheldon – differentiates her from past recipients. And perhaps no recipient has been as controversial or politically polarizing as Limbaugh.
Who will Trump pick next?
Trump’s future selections will tell us even more about who he is and what legacy he wants to leave as president. In fact, if these first awards are any indication, Trump might use his medal selections to associate himself with cultural icons not yet claimed by other presidents.
What’s next, then?
Why not “the great presidents” – think George Washington? Or great inventors – think George Washington Carver?
If Donald Trump’s mission is to “Make America Great Again,” the Presidential Medal of Freedom may be our best indication of what greatness looks like to him.
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a story originally published on Nov. 16, 2018.
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E. Fletcher McClellan, Professor of Political Science, Elizabethtown College; Christopher Devine, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Dayton, and Kyle C. Kopko, Associate Professor of Political Science, Elizabethtown College