We wind up the year. It has been full of drama. We now prepare for fun. Christmas is coming, very soon, and whatever religious holiday you celebrate, you’ve probably got some cheer and downtime coming. And this is good.
Shall we have some fun? One thing we could do, together, is sit down for a minute, read this, and take part in a bit of constructive mischief.
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The Presidential Medal of Freedom was created in 1945 by Harry Truman to recognize high and heroic civilian contributions in time of war. President Kennedy reinstituted it shortly before he died in 1963; he continued it as the highest civilian award in the country but wanted it given to those who give great service to their country in time of peace.
Many great artists, scientists, civic leaders, entertainers, novelists, union leaders and political figures of all stripes have received the award, which happens to be very pretty: a red-white-and-blue enameled star on a round gold filigreed medal, with a navy-blue ribbon trimmed in white. About a dozen Americans receive them every year or so, usually in a colorful ceremony in which the president personally hands it to you in the White House, lauds your great work and thanks you on behalf of a grateful nation.
I saw Mother Teresa win it; they waived the requirement that you be an American citizen for her, in part because so many of her convents did so much work in America’s cities. She was given the award in a special Rose Garden ceremony, and afterwards, pressed by a reporter on what she thought of Ronald Reagan, she uttered a few words that carried a real definitional wallop. “In him greatness and simplicity are one,” she said. Then she and a bevy of nuns hurried away, but not before pressing into my hand a pamphlet with a drawing of Christ and inside a poem she had written about him. She looked at me and said two words: Luff Gott. Love God. Then she walked softly and quickly into a black White House car and was gone.
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I love the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To me it’s like a Medal of Honor for civilians, only without the physical derring-do. The ceremony itself is always full of high feeling, marked by the delight that comes with seeing excellence recognized, celebrated and applauded. (It should be broadcast in its entirety on television, so children can be inspired.) And it’s an open and egalitarian award: you just have to be a citizen who has done great things that have been a great benefit.
In 1984 or ‘85, as a speechwriter to President Reagan, I wrote a series of memos putting forth the name of those I thought deserved it, and made what I felt was a strong case for Steven Sondheim and, my special hope, the novelist Walker Percy, whose “The Moviegoer” was in my view the great novel of the second half of the 20th century. (In it, greatness and simplicity are one.) My nominees were not chosen; I think that was the year Frank Sinatra won. He too had been in his career a great contributor to the pleasure of the people, so what the heck. But Percy was alive then, and I think it might have meant something.
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It happens that our busy president is coming up on his first anniversary as chief executive. It happens that he has not yet awarded any Medals of Freedom. He and his staff are preoccupied with a hot war and a cold recession and are busy. There’s no rush; the medals don’t have to be given every year. But right about now the White House should have in it someone who is . . . thinking about it. I have not been able to find that person.
I think we should help. I think we should make our own list, don’t you?
It seems to me obvious that George Bush’s first Medals of Freedom should be given to the men and women who one way or another pulled us through September 11, 2001.
I have my list. Take a look at it, and add a name or two if you want. (We don’t have to be limited to the events of 9/11, I just think we should.) The hardy and incredibly devoted James Taranto and Brendan Miniter, editors of OpinionJournal, will post here as many of your ideas as they can. Then we will forward the whole bundle to the White House in an e-mail whose subject line is: The people have spoken.
I feel certain that the White House will listen to us, as we are the millions of men and women who read OpinionJournal, and we are not to be ignored.
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All right, my list, not in order of importance or even love, just as they come to me.
1. The New York City Fire Department. On their medals: “The hero comes when he is needed. When our belief gets pale and weak there comes a man out of that need who is bright and shining, and everyone around him reflects some of that glow, and stores some up against the day when he is gone.”
2. The men and women, the airline staff and passengers, on the planes that went into the towers and the Pentagon. We’ll never know the exact dimensions of the heroism on those planes, but we know it was there. See quote above.
3. The New York City Police Department and Emergency Medical Services personnel. Not as celebrated as the FDNY, but full of people who put it all on the line that day.
4. The men and women of the Pentagon, who lived and led through what happened there. This includes Donald Rumsfeld, who ran not from the scene but to the scene and helped the wounded. I don’t know if that’s a good thing in a defense secretary the day a war starts, but it’s hard to think of a better symbol of the goodness and egalitarianism that people displayed that terrible day.
5. Rudy. It was said of the great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa that his work was marked by this dynamic: “The villains have arrived while the hero is evolving.” Rudy had a lot of time to evolve over his two terms, and he did. By the time the bad guys came, he was ready; he had become the man he was intended to be. He used all his gifts. He led with perfect integration of head and heart.
6. The Flag Raisers. The three firemen in New York who lifted the colors, and whose Iwo Jima-like moment was immortalized on the front page of the New York Post, among other papers, with the headline PROOF THROUGH THE NIGHT THAT OUR FLAG WAS STILL THERE. Ditto the men at Ground Zero who unfurled a huge flag from a broken building. Ditto the man at the Pentagon who, the night of the attack, put up a huge flag and trained a spotlight on it so everyone going by would see the proof through the night.
7. Paul McCartney. While Rock Hollywood went somewhat Goth and dark in its all-network fund-raiser and tribute to heroes, it was the fireman’s son from Liverpool who, a few weeks later, really got it right. He came into New York, got the room, put on the show, electrified hundreds of thousands of tired and sad New Yorkers, and reminded them they could rock again. The former Beatle is already Sir Paul McCartney. America can do the Brits one better. After giving him the Medal of Freedom we can, by act of Congress, give him honorary citizenship of the United States of America. Paul McCartney, American. That just sounds right.
8. Michael Moran. I know it was vulgar; I know it wasn’t dignified; I suspect it wasn’t sober. But don’t you think Mr. Moran, a fireman, got it right when he informed Osama bin Laden that he, Mr. Moran, was from Rockaway, and OBL could kiss his royal Irish ass? It was so old-fashioned ethnic, so old-fashioned Brooklyn and Queens. It was the authentic voice of the old New York, which was newly back in style. It captured what so many of us feel, whether of the Hibernian persuasion or not. And it’s always nice to give a nod to royalty.
9. The cheerers. The men and women and kids who lined up on the West Side Highway in Manhattan for a month to cheer on the workers going into Ground Zero and the workers coming out after a 12-hour shift. I will never forget the middle-aged Hispanic woman I saw with her two little grandchildren, one in a stroller. They were standing in the dark by themselves just off the highway. The child in the stroller held a little American flag. The mother held a hand-lettered sign torn from a cardboard box. It said, “America You Are Not Alone, Mexico Is With You!” When people under stress see things like that, it means everything.
10. Oprah. I don’t know how many shows she did helping people get through the horror of 9/11—and I mean everyone, from those who lost loved ones to young people who can’t work in skyscrapers anymore, and people who started to descend into all sorts of emotional dark places. Oprah would not give up on 9/11; she stuck with it as the only subject matter of our day, she got people on her show who could help people. It was a stupendous public service, done with no eye to the ratings and against the common wisdom that we have to move on. Her show didn’t move on until it moved people on. Also she came to New York and did, with Bette Midler, a fabulous stadium show. So:
11. Bette Midler too.
12. The men and women of the media. They drive us so crazy with their lockstep view of the world; they consciously and unconsciously skew the news; they see the world through the very same lens and ask the very same questions and rarely and only for entertainment or under cultural duress allow other points of view on their air. These are people who badly need real diversity-training sessions. And for all that, they did the work of heroes on Sept. 11. They were cool and tough and unstoppable; they hit the sites and got the news and risked their lives. And the brightest of them understood for at least the first 24 hours of this war that they might be hit live, on the air, kaboom! The great symbols of American commerce and military might had already been hit; only the media remained. They did their jobs and held their ground. Well done crazy-making and courageous journos.
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That’s my list of the people who made all the difference that day, who got covered in grit and ran to the trouble. They’re my dirty dozen. Add some of your own. We’ll send it to the White House, to help them. And yes, we are talking about a heck of a lot of medals. But then a heck of a lot of people earned them.