Looking at this year’s surprising and in some cases surprised recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, it seems fair to divide them into three categories: well-considered objects of deference, such as Nancy Reagan, tenor Placido Domingo, medical humanitarian D.A. Henderson, and management theorist Peter Drucker; excuses for meaningless ideological gestures, namely Irving Kristol; and representatives of victimological solidarity exemplified by Hank Aaron, Bill Cosby, Nelson Mandela, the late Katherine Graham, and Abe Rosenthal. Only Nancy Reagan, in the first of these three categories, has some conceivable connection to the President’s Republican base; the other categories reflect the illusions stubbornly entertained by what Sam Francis calls the “stupid party.” Whether or not you or I admire the presidency of Ronald Reagan, he and his wife Nancy enjoy solid support among a Republican core constituency, one that in California voted for Reagan for governor twice and one that campaigned for him nationwide for president. Honoring the faithful mate of this Republican national leader, who is now elderly and ill, with a presidential medal makes political sense, particularly for a Republican successor who must count on much of the same constituency as the one that stood behind Ronald Reagan.
What is less obvious is why Bush, Jr. chooses to honor a neocon publicist who is long past influencing anyone — and who has done nothing for the GOP or for the world of learning. One might be reckless enough to compare this choice to James Burnham, who received a Medal of Freedom in 1983, but the comparison fails. Although Burnham and Kristol were both intellectuals generally identified with “conservatism,” the distinction in their achievements is enormous. There is simply nothing in Kristol’s journalistic output to compare to Burnham’s masterpieces on the managerial revolution and on the Machiavellian tradition in political thought.
Although both started off as Trotskyists, significantly Burnham, even in that phase of his career, was by far the more distinguished thinker, enjoying the high opinion of his Communist mentor in exile in Mexico, who considered the then linguistic philosopher his most brilliant follower in the U.S. It is also questionable whether Kristol makes it into the class of notables represented by Placido Domingo and Henderson, who have made signal contributions to our time, one as a magnificent opera singer and the other as someone who has helped to eradicate small pox worldwide. He may, however, bear comparison to the equally tedious author, Peter Drucker, though having studied Drucker’s early output, it seems that this Austrian exile scholar once did serious sociology.
The catering done to Aaron, Cosby, Rosenthal, and Graham posthumously indicates the perfect match between the stupid party and its presidential standard-bearer. All of these Medal of Freedom recipients represent in a shrill fashion groups that the Republican Party will attract when, as my mother used to say, “hair will grow on the palm of your hand.” Although Cosby, Aaron, Rosenthal, and Graham, have all pursued careers of some sort, Cosby as a mouthy comedian, Aaron as a gifted baseball player, Rosenthal as a not so gifted journalist and Graham as the accidental inheritor of the Washington Post, in recent years these figures have gained public attention as spokespersons for the Left.
Aaron has competed with Jesse Jackson in complaining about the discrimination allegedly practiced against blacks in baseball, lamenting the dubious fact that there are not enough black managers and coaches while black baseball players are somehow being treated worse than white ones. Although Willie Mays was arguably as great a ballplayer, unlike Aaron, he never played the race card and may therefore have escaped the attention of Republican presidents as a worthy recipient of national recognition. Cosby has made the same noises as does Aaron, when he has not been busy blaming black crime on racist police or refusing to hire whites.
Graham devoted her newspaper to the same kind of politics, when she was not going after Republican presidents as threats to the poor and to minorities. To the extent Mandela has political views, they are socialist tinged with Marxism. One wonders whether a Republican leader would now show the same courage in reaching out to Communist victims as they do in feting Marxist revolutionaries.
As for Rosenthal, who yells anti-Semite at the unwelcome drop of a pin, the less said the better. Despite his undoubtedly feigned hysteria in describing paleos or anyone who deviates from his opinions on Middle Eastern affairs, Rosenthal sounds credible when he claims to have been utterly “surprised” by Bush’s choice of him as a recipient of the Medal of Honor. After all, this longtime New York Times editor is neither a Republican nor a conservative; and it is hard to find anyone who goes more ballistic than he does about Republican core voters in the Religious Right, except when said religionists are expressing their support for Premier Sharon.
Assessing the current batch of Medal of Freedom recipients reminds me of how much more I respect the Democrats than the Republicans. Clinton, a man of relative dignitude, invariably rewarded loyalists, even when he picked talented artists and performers, like Isaac Stern. An unabashed party-man, he understood the need to reward and stroke his partisan followers and those who stood for the ideological foundation of his party.
But the Republicans behave differently. They treat everything as an occasion to “reach out” to those who have given them nothing, in order to show that they are “tolerant” and have ceased to be cultural WASPs. It would serve them and Dubya right if Rosenthal, Cosby and Aaron did the predictable thing and came out in support of the Democrats, as the alternative to Republican bigotry. I can hardly wait to see that happen. As I told my friend Mark Dankof, anything disastrous that befalls the reaching-out party will make my day.