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President Obama awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to John Glenn

History of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

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By Brian Hurwitz

During his State of the Union address, President Trump awarded radio host Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A lightening rod of controversy for three decades, many subsequently questioned whether or not Limbaugh had earned the nation's highest civilian honor. Many names of those who have received the award in the past will long be remembered as some of the greatest men and women of their generations. But the merit of other previous recipients has occasionally been called into question. Whether or not Limbaugh stacks up against them will be debated for some time.

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President John F. Kennedy
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The Presidential Medal of Freedom was established by former President John F. Kennedy in 1963 to recognize individuals who have made exceptional contributions to the security or national interests of the United States. Receipt of the award is at the sole discretion of the serving President and need not be voted on by any body. In the medal's 56 year history, it has been bestowed on people in a variety of industries, from the arts and entertainment to politicians and educators.

Diana Ross
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While President's need not justify their reasoning for awarding the medal, it often reflects their individual preferences. Former President and movie star Ronald Regan made no secret of his fondness for old friends James Cagney and Jimmy Stewart, awarding both medals of freedom. And President Barack Obama awarded it to several of his favorite performers, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan and Gloria Estefan amongst them. Bill Clinton's decision to posthumously bestow the honor on the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was widely praised, as was President Gerald Ford's decision to do the same for Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bill Cosby
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The award, however, can certainly be controversial. Bill Cosby was bestowed with the honor by former President George W. Bush. Following his conviction for sexual assault, there have been numerous calls for that award to be revoked. Bush also honored former FEMA Director Mike Brown with the award owing to his handling of Hurricane Katrina. However many questioned his merit in receiving it. Rush Limbaugh now joins this controversial list owing to his critique of feminism, his rejection of climate change science and his expressed anti-LGBT views.

Past recipient Oprah Winfrey
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Regardless of their opinions on Limbaugh, the majority of Americans see the civilian honor as a symbol of the greatness to which we all aspire. Greatness embodied by such people as retired general Colin Powell, who was one of only two people awarded the Medal of Freedom on two separate occasions by two separate presidents. Greatness embodied by activists such as Helen Keller and Cesar Chavez, both posthumously honored. And greatness embodied by such inspirational figures as Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison.

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