Oprah gets another award: The Presidential Medal of Freedom

November 20, 2013
Oprah Winfrey attends a photocall for "The Butler" at the Corinthia Hotel London on November 14, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/WireImage)
Oprah Winfrey  (Dave M. Benett/WireImage)

Oprah’s getting another award.

Now, this is a big one – she’ll be at the White House Wednesday to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor the president can bestow. But let’s face it: This woman has so many trophies we don’t know where she keeps them all.

Although some celebrities receive these medals, honorees are more likely to be politicians, civil rights leaders, athletes, scientists and other “individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

So Bill Clinton (who President Obama joked should be named “Secretary of Explaining Stuff”) was a lock for this year’s list, along with feminist icon Gloria Steinem and famed Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

And Oprah? Harder to pin down exactly why she landed on the list, but that’s the story of her career. The woman known by one name is famous for. . .well, being a talk show host. She’s so much more, of course, but doesn’t fit easily into categories, which is why she mostly gets lifetime achievement awards.

To wit: The Academy Awards gave her the 2011 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. She got a Kennedy Center Honor in 2010, received both prime-time and daytime Emmys for humanitarian efforts, and a spot in the NAACP’s Hall of Fame. The New York Public Library honored her for turning her adoring viewers into adoring readers. Then there’s the eight times on Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World and too many People’s Choice Awards to count.

She’s getting the Medal of Freedom as “one of the world’s most successful broadcast journalists” and philanthropists. When her name was announced in August, the tweet-happy superstar kept a discreet silence. She joins a short list of other celebrities who’ve been recently honored: Doris Day, Charlton Heston, Fred Rogers, Bill Cosby,  Carol Burnett, Andy Griffith, Rita Moreno and Sidney Poitier.

(Mike Windle/Getty Images for TWC)
(Mike Windle/Getty Images for TWC)

The annual selections are kept close to the vest; individuals can be nominated and the White House winnows it down to about a dozen. We got a peek inside the process when Aram Bakshian, who served in the Reagan administration and compiled a list of possible nominees, gave an interview in 2002 to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

There were, he said, many honorees worthy of recognition – and a few not so much. “I’m not going to name any names – but one or two people, who had spent a lot of money and been humanitarians but not all that distinguished, but also had spent a lot of money contributing to candidacies, finally got in,” he said. “These were people I’d managed to fend off while I was there, but then they crept through. Also people who had had some accomplishments but I didn’t think were quite up to the Medal of Freedom but who later on got in.” Of course, the president always gets the final say.

This year’s other honorees include baseball player Ernie Banks; late senator Daniel Inouye; country singer Loretta Lynn and North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith.

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