There are those who worry that partisan politics and economic disparities are pushing the United States away from the principles of fairness, equality and decency that have been the hallmarks of the nation since its inception. They need look no farther than the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony Tuesday at the White House to be reassured that their fears are groundless. The list of recipients, the comments made by President Barack Obama and the inclusive atmosphere of the event are testament to the enduring spirit and promise of the nation.
The medal is given in recognition of contributions to U.S. national security, world peace, culture or other significant accomplishments. The 15 honorees this year come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have followed diverse path in their lives and work, but all are united by their leadership and their service to others. The recipients, the president said, speak to “who we are as a people ” and “reveal the best of who we are and who we aspire to be.”
Former President George H.W. Bush and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., both honored Tuesday, give meaning to the president’s words.
Lewis came from humble circumstances, but has built a remarkable resume of public service. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize the first sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and was nearly beaten to death in what, to the nation’s shame, came to be called “Bloody Sunday.”
He’s been in Congress since 1986 and continues to speak out on issues of justice and equality. He was almost overwhelmed by emotion by the ceremony. He told reporters afterward that the award was the more special coming from Obama, the nation’s first black president.
“If someone had told me that one day I would be standing in the White House and an African-American president would be presenting me the Medal of Freedom I would say, ‘Are you crazy? Are you of your mind?’” Lewis said. “It’s just an impossible dream.” Not quite. It is a quintessentially American dream that did come true.
Bush, 86 and frail, came of age in comfort. Before he was elected president in 1988, he served in the U.S. Navy and as a congressman, United Nations ambassador, Republican Party chairman, U.S. envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and two terms as vice president. “His life is a testament that public service is a noble calling,” Obama said. “His humility and his decency reflects the very best of the American spirit. Those of you who know him — this a gentleman.”
Obama’s praise was heartfelt, and free of the partisan phrases now current in official Washington. The spectacle of a Democratic president heaping praise on a Republican predecessor and having an audience of mostly Democrats join in waves of applause says something important about the United States.
The nation may be divided in some ways, and it might lose track of where it has been and where it wants to go now and then, but it remains a place where men and women earn acclaim and honor because of merit and achievement, not family connections or fortune. It’s nice to be reminded of that.