The recognitions

Yesterday the White House announced six recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Medal of Freedom is our highest civil award. Among the deserving recipients are General Peter Pace and Judge Laurence Silberman.

Unfortunately, also among the recipients is the former Clinton administration mediocrity Donna Shalala. Shalala first made her name in academia with her effort to stamp out freedom of speech at the University of Wisconsin, where she served as chancellor. Today she serves as president of the University of Miami. In its statement yesterday, the White House saluted Shalala as “one of our Nation’s most distinguished educators and public officials.” Who is kidding whom? Given her record in academia, Win Myers denounces the award to Shalala as obscene.

Those with a long memory of the Clinton administration’s lowlights may recall Shalala’s role in one of them. After the Lewinsky story broke, Clinton called a cabinet meeting where, according to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “The President started out by saying that the allegations are untrue, that we should stay focused on our jobs and that he will be fine.” Four department heads emerged from that meeting eager to announce their belief in the story Clinton was retailing. Shalala “seconded” and “thirded” Madeleine Albright’s avowal of undimmed faith in Clinton:

Secretary of Education Richard Riley: “I think what he [Clinton] thinks. . . I do. I absolutely do.”

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “I believe that the allegations are completely untrue.”

Secretary of Commerce William Daley: “I’ll second that, definitely.”

Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala: “I’ll second that, too.”

Secretary Daley: “Third it.”

Secretary Shalala: “Third it.”

The award to Shalala is not only unjustifiable on its own terms, it overlooks two scholars whose works have served the cause of freedom and the United States. They are truly deserving of the recognition that the Presidential Medal of Freedom would confer. The award to Shalala is particularly incomprehensible in light of the continuing failure to provide comparable recognition to them.

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There may be no American whose service to freedom outside the armed forces makes him more deserving of a Medal of Freedom than Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Thomas Sowell. Sowell is a remarkable man who has produced a distinguished body of work over a long career. I tumbled to Sowell through a hilariously derisive review he had written for Commentary in 1975 of one of John Kenneth Galbraith’s books. Sowell’s December 1975 review of the Galbraith book — his first of several important pieces published in Commentary — is accessible via Commentary’s digital archives. (Thanks to Sam Munson at Commentary for making the review accessible at our request.)

Sowell’s books and columns have been a source of inspiration to many lovers of freedom. Recogniton of Sowell with a Medal of Freedom would be the proper accompaniment to the Medal awarded in 2004 to former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, who helped bring Sowell to the attention of many readers like me.

When Sowell turned 75, he celebrated the occasion with a characteristically thoughtful column. The conclusion of his column on that occasion is still timely:

All the dark and ominous times that this country and the world have passed through and overcome in the past 75 years make it hard to despair, even in the face of growing signs of internal degeneracy today. Pessimism, yes. Despair, not yet.

In my personal life, I can remember a time when our family had no such frills as electricity, central heating, or hot running water.

Even after we left the poverty-stricken Jim Crow South and moved to a new life in Harlem, I can remember at the age of nine seeing a public library for the first time and having to have a young friend explain to me patiently what a public library was.

There is much to complain about today and to fear for the future of our children and our country. But despair? Not yet.

We have all come through too much for that.

Also deserving of a Medal of Freedom is Claremont Institute Senior Fellow Harry V. Jaffa. Jaffa is the man whose scholarship restored our understanding of the political thought of Abraham Lincoln. As the prominent historian Allen Guelzo observed in the bibliographic essay that concludes Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates is “incontestably the greatest Lincoln book of the [twentieth] century.”

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In 2000 Professor Jaffa also published the long-awaited sequel to CrisisA New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War — that is also a great and perhaps even more important work. Lincoln is the martyr of America’s “ancient faith” and Professor Jaffa’s contribution to our understanding of what is most important about Lincoln is richly deserving of recognition with a Medal of Freedom.

UPDATE: At NRO’s Corner, Yuval Levin comments:

It’s bad enough when presidents give such awards to people who have served their administration even when they don’t deserve it (this White House has done that, unfortunately). But to give it to an undeserving person from a past administration, and one who worked against some important causes this president has championed, is really beyond belief.

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