President Trump announced Monday he would be awarding Tiger Woods the Presidential Medal of Freedom after his Masters victory.
Donald Trump loves a winner. And Tiger Woods is a winner.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom, considered the nation’s highest civilian honor, has traditionally been bestowed on public servants, pioneering astronauts, visionary world leaders, poets and artists.
Monday, President Trump said he would award the medal to Woods following his inspiring comeback at the Masters to win his 15th major championship.
Woods’ award will be Trump’s eighth Medal of Freedom. While previous presidents have preferred politicians, artists and scientists for the award, half of Trump’s have gone to athletes – revealing a Trump worldview that sees sports as central to American life.
Awarding the medal is usually a months-long process to winnow down a long list of potential honorees. Trump made the decision within 24 hours of Woods’ 18th-hole putt to clinch the green jacket for the first time in 14 years.
And Trump announced it, characteristically, with a tweet. “because of his incredible Success & Comeback in Sports (Golf) and, more importantly, LIFE, I will be presenting him with the PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM!”
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Woods, 43, will be one of the youngest people ever awarded the Medal of Freedom (most of the Apollo astronauts were younger), and the first active athlete.
Woods will be the fourth golfer to receive the honor, after Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Charlie Sifford, the pioneering African-American golfer whom Woods has called “the grandpa that I never had.”
‘It’s almost like the queen knighting someone’
Overall, Trump is lagging his predecessors in the number of medals, waiting longer to award his first medals than any other president. By this point in their presidencies, Bill Clinton had awarded 18 medals, George W. Bush 12, and Barack Obama 35.
Awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom gives presidents an opportunity to make a statement about their values, their idols and their cultural preferences, says Christopher Devine, a political science professor at the University of Dayton.
“It’s a way of associating his legacy with some important cultural or political figure who has helped to shape what the Unites States is,” says Devine, who has studied the history of the medal. “It’s almost like the queen knighting someone. It’s probably the closest thing we have to that.”
There have been 590 of the medals awarded over the past 56 years. Democratic presidents have awarded more medals than Republicans, Devine said, but Republicans are twice as likely to give them to athletes.
Trump, a golf course owner, avid golfer and former owner of the USFL New Jersey Generals, recognized three athletes with the medal last year: baseball legend Babe Ruth, NFL quarterback Roger Staubach and former NFL defensive tackle Alan Page. Page also served on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
President John F. Kennedy created the award in 1963 to recognize contributions to national security, world peace or “cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” The first class of recipients included Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, painter Andrew Wyeth, union boss George Meany and Polaroid inventor Edwin H. Land.
But Kennedy was killed before he had the chance to award the medals, and so ironically, he became among the award’s first recipients when President Lyndon Johnson took up the task two weeks later.
President Ronald Reagan raised the profile of the medal with star-studded White House ceremonies.
“What the Olympic Gold Medal is to athletes, what the Congressional Medal of Honor is to the military, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is to the private United States citizen,” President Reagan he said in awarding his first class of medals in 1981.
President Barack Obama awarded the medal more than any other president, using his picks to reflect racial, ethnic and gender diversity. But they were also a personal reflection of his values and cultural touchstones. His awards included television hosts Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres; athletes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Ernie Banks; and singers Dianna Ross and Bruce Springsteen.
Obama also awarded the medal to his vice president, Joe Biden.
Trump, too, has used the medal as a political tool. He awarded it last year to then-Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; and Miriam Adelson – a doctor and philanthropist but also the wife of casino owner Sheldon Adelson, a Republican campaign donor.
Trump also awarded the medal posthumously to Elvis Presley.
One of the things presidents like about the medal, Devine says, is that it’s something they can do by themselves. Since it was created by executive order, neither Congress nor the courts have any say. There used to be a Distinguished Civilian Service Awards Board to advise the president on the award, but President Jimmy Carter abolished it in 1977.
“It’s the highest honor the nation can give, but only the president can give it,” Devine says. “I’m shocked that he hasn’t used this more often. You just pick someone who’s a cultural icon. It’s a really easy thing to get right.”
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