As a high school English literature teacher, I often reminded my students that a hero is admired because he or she embodies the ideals of a society’s culture. President Donald Trump’s awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to controversial conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh recently caused me to seriously reflect upon that old adage.
Assuming that Medal of Freedom recipients are worthy of hero status, I found Limbaugh’s award alarming. Seeing him as nothing more than a loud-mouth political hack, I don’t want to believe someone like him in any way typifies the best of our society’s culture. Hence, I want to regard his selection as an anomaly—the product of cynical political motives.
Furthermore, I initially questioned the premise that an individual who makes his living talking into a microphone could be considered as any kind of hero. But in reviewing the list of previous Medal of Freedom recipients, I unexpectedly discovered that one other recipient who made his living behind a microphone best exemplifies what is wrong with Limbaugh getting this award.
I interpreted the president’s action as a highly partisan and provocative one. What I normally considered as the bestowing of a prestigious honor, in this particular instance I viewed as nothing more than an inappropriate Trumpian homage to those things he values most—buffoonery, bombast, bullying and the pursuit of divisiveness.
I seriously questioned the validity of an award I had long taken for granted. For years, I had heard the names of individuals mentioned as recipients and basically agreed with the choices. As a whole, I trusted the respective president’s judgement.
The awarding of Limbaugh’s medal led me to go back and review the criteria for the award, as well as the entire list of past recipients, all 625 of them. I learned the criteria calls for recognizing individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
What I found in reviewing the list was both interesting and reassuring. The overwhelming majority of these heroes indeed reflect the best of our society. There are some choices based primarily on politics or ideological preferences, but they are greatly outnumbered by all the worthy selections.
Many famous names appear as obvious choices. Names like Norman Schwarzkopf, Omar Bradley, Jimmy Doolittle and Neil Armstrong represent critical moments in our nation’s history. So too, do the names of civil rights giants like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez.
I was surprised so many individuals from the literary and performing arts had been recognized for their excellence. Hollywood types like Andy Griffith, Tom Hanks, Doris Day and Gregory Peck are on the list, and though some critics may deem such entertainment as trivial, the roles these actors have played make up an important part of Americana—they positively reflect how we want to view our culture
I was happy to see the writing of Robert Penn Warren had earned him recognition. On those days when I guided my students in the analysis of his poetry, I always considered the experience a privilege. The inclusion of other great writers like Toni Morrison and John Steinbeck also made sense to me.
The number of athletes on the list is what ultimately got my attention (a total of thirty-three), though understanding the prominence of sports in our society readily explains why such is the case. As a Baby Boomer who grew up in the Los Angeles area, I was pleased to see the names of Jerry West, John Wooden and Kareem Abdul Jabbar on the list.
In the midst of the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s, these Los Angeles sports legends provided a reassuring sense of excellence, class and civility for both kids and adults. Such individuals were invaluable at a time when our society openly challenged many traditional American values and assumptions. In West, Wooden and Jabbar, we saw that certain bedrock, foundational ideals like hard work, humility, coolness under pressure, and teamwork mattered.
While scrolling down the list, however, I caught the name of one more sports figure associated with Los Angeles—Vin Scully, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ long time radio and TV broadcaster (a total of sixty-seven seasons). Though he has long been considered an LA institution, I didn’t expect to see him on the list. As much as I admired Scully for his superior broadcasting skills (he is generally considered to be the greatest sports announcer of all time), my initial reaction was to ponder the question, “Can a radio announcer be considered a hero?”
I then remembered those summer nights my family spent listening to Scully’s smooth voice as he lyrically described the action on the ball field, recalling his sense of civility and the uplifting nature of his delivery. Though he was neither player or manager, his consistently polite manner and positive attitude soothed and inspired the listener, no matter the outcome of the game.
Like any hero, he calmly guided his followers through the rough times of losing seasons, in a way that showed no disrespect for the opposing teams or those Dodger players experiencing a slump. He never exploited an athlete’s luckless fate in favor of higher ratings. His broadcast booth was a buffoonery, bombast, bullying and divisiveness-free zone.
Needless to say, his style stands in stark contrast to Rush Limbaugh. Though our society has grown more coarse over the past few years, I want to believe that Scully’s civility and positivity, as opposed to Limbaugh’s constant mockery and combativeness, best reflects the aspirational nature of our culture. We may not always be civil and positive, but most of us want to be.
I encourage everyone to take a look at the list of past Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients. You’ll come away impressed by most of the selections. I especially encourage you to do so before Trump decides to place another angry shock jock on the list.
Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.