A June 24 Style article incorrectly stated that Walter B. Wriston, former chairman and chief executive of Citibank, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. Wriston is 85 years old and living in New York City. (Published 6/25/04) ----- A June 24 Style story on the Presidential Medal of Freedom misstated who received the award when it was established at the end of World War II. It was originally given to citizens of other countries as well as American civilians who had helped the war effort. (Published 6/28/04)
About success: There is not much to say that is unambiguous these days.
Except, of course, congratulations. To Arnold Palmer and Norman Podhoretz and a handful of other men, plus two actresses and a cosmetics billionaire, many of whom sat under the chandeliers and lights in the East Room of the White House and made everything so much clearer. This is success. These people did it right.
How to win -- a war, an election, the moral high ground -- that's still fuzzy. This is why we need the Presidential Medal of Freedom and its 13 accomplished recipients -- to distill the black and white from the vast gray.
What is success, exactly? Well, President Bush said yesterday when he handed out America's highest civilian honor that it is the work of these people honored: authors, intellectuals, animal rights activists, actors and religious leaders.
Seated behind the president was Palmer, who has won 92 championships and nodded approvingly as Bush mimed a golf grip. Next to the master golfer sat a petite, Puerto Rican actress in a bright red suit and a wide-brimmed black hat. She blushed when Bush declared, to a collection of awards that includes an "Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy, Rita Moreno may now add the Presidential Medal of Freedom."
Unable to attend because of her fear of flying was iconic singer and movie star Doris Day, "a beautiful lady," in the president's words, "and a special presence in American life." Day, famous for her recording of "Sentimental Journey" and for starring alongside Jimmy Stewart and Ronald Reagan, is also an activist for animal welfare. Bush said he called her on Tuesday and told her she would be missed. Earlier this month, Bush visited the Vatican, where he presented a Medal of Freedom to Pope John Paul II, "a son of Poland who became bishop of Rome and a hero of our time."
There are not many prizes that are awarded at once to movie stars, athletes, intellectuals and a makeup entrepreneur; in this case, Estee Lauder, whose life Bush identified as the "great American success story." Originally, when Harry Truman established the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the end of World War II, it was awarded to American civilians who had helped the war effort.
But since then, America has redefined success a few times. For a while Presidential Medals of Freedom were as common as Golden Globes, given out to 20,000 people of varying backgrounds. Then President John F. Kennedy reconfigured the award as a prize for "especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interest of the United States, World Peace or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."
This year, as in years past, there was a gentle partisan bent to the ceremony. Like-minded recipients included Walter B. Wriston, former chairman and chief executive officer of Citibank, and chairman of President Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board, who received the award posthumously; Edward W. Brooke, the first elected black U.S. senator, who as a Republican from Massachusetts served for 12 years; Robert L. Bartley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page who also was awarded the medal posthumously; and Podhoretz, a leader in neoconservative thought who once called the lust for success a "dirty little secret."
And as always, there was the clutch of kindly looking octa- and nonagenarians, and their slight juniors, who warmly and cheerfully accepted the award before a crowd of about 150 friends and family members. Honoree Arnall Patz discovered that giving premature infants large amounts oxygen could cause blindness. Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 1995 and a prominent member of the Mormon community since the 1930s, received the medal and turned 94 -- not a bad day for him.
Hinckley followed Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corp. of New York and a leader of the revitalization of the New York Library in the 1980s, and Gilbert M. Grosvenor, chairman of the National Geographic Society, who walked away with the medal in his hand because Bush had trouble fastening it.
These men whispered to the president as he hooked, or tried to hook, the medal behind their neck. It was an intimate moment, as intimate as they get in this grand and chilly room, between the portraits of George and Martha Washington, in front of dozens of photographers and steps away from the president's wife and senior advisers. What do they whisper as the military aide chants a litany of their life's accomplishments?
"Thank you," mouthed Hinckley as Bush wished him a happy birthday.
"Thank you," mouthed Gregorian as Bush shook his hand.
Podhoretz, characteristically, had much more to say. It was impossible to make out, but one imagined he was saying something about pride and accomplishment, the diversity of American success and the secret to it. Later, watching the honorees exit, one by one, to an instrumental version of "I Feel Pretty," it was a comfort to know, even if you couldn't hear it, that such a secret exists.