Presidential medals and other so-so honors

The 16 presidential medals handed out in a White House ceremony on Wednesday was a lot to give out in one shot. But then the whole enterprise has of late seemed watered down. Such medals ought to go only to truly distinguished people, no matter what one thinks of their politics: to such people as George F. Kennan or A. Philip Randolph or T.S. Eliot, who won them, and not to Jesse Jackson or Henry Hyde or Bob Dylan, who shouldn’t have won them. Give such awards to the wrong people too often and such prestige as the medals might originally have carried is quickly drained.

I once wrote of Pulitzer Prizes that they tend to go to two types of people: those who don’t need them and those who don’t deserve them. (When Katharine Graham won a Pulitzer Prize in biography for “Personal History,” her rather whiney autobiography, my friend Hilton Kramer remarked that she satisfied both criteria at once.) The same might be said of the current batch of winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. One of them, Bill Clinton, needs a presidential medal the way the pope needs a bowling trophy.