After Stan Musial, the St. Louis Cardinals baseball legend, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, relatives of Yogi Berra wondered why the Yankees star hadn’t been similarly honored.
“I thought, ‘Huh, who knows,’ ” recalled Berra’s oldest granddaughter, Lindsay Berra. “You don’t really think , ‘Let me call the president and get him a medal.’ It’s not something you really do.”
But as Berra’s 90th birthday approached in the spring, President Obama’s campaign pollster Joel Benenson — a longtime board member of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center — asked White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett how nominees were chosen. Jarrett explained the vetting was already underway, but another top White House aide urged Benenson to start an online petition to advance the famed catcher’s cause.
On Tuesday, Berra will be a posthumous recipient of the Medal of Freedom, as much for his work with minority and LGBT athletes as for his athletic ability or famous malapropisms.
How Berra ended up on the list of awardees offers a glimpse into the quirky and secretive process surrounding one of the nation’s highest honors and is a rare example of how the Washington of today actually works.
There are no rules regarding the selection process, aside from the fact that the president makes the final call. Any lobbying campaign must adhere to the Goldilocks principle — not too little, not too much — and while connections matter, they are no guarantee of success. An honor that began as a way to recognize spies for their work during World War II has come to reflect the particular ethos of each administration and the deep allegiances a handful of people have inspired over a lifetime.
The original “Medal of Freedom” honor garnered little attention. But when President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to expand it into a national honors system, according to Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, Congress resisted on the grounds that it was too reminiscent of titles handed out by British monarchs. President John F. Kennedy solved this problem with an executive order in 1963, at the suggestion of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Labor Department official.
While Eisenhower had envisioned a commission overseeing the nominations, it quickly became a much more insular process. Kennedy made his selections in consultation with his wife, although he did not live to award them because he was assassinated before the ceremony could take place.
In 1969, Moynihan and a fellow White House staffer, Len Garment, assembled a list for President Richard M. Nixon to consider, Hess writes in his book “The Professor and the President,” and the final group included the Apollo 11 astronauts as well as actors Bob Hope and Gregory Peck and Moynihan’s political mentor, Averell Harriman.
In recent decades, the White House staff secretary has run the process, with input from the president’s senior advisers, Cabinet secretaries and the first lady’s office. But Jarrett said the current process is not that formal.
“This is something the president is directly involved with, from beginning to end,” she said. “The president looks for heroes who have made not just an enormous contribution to society, but people who have touched him in a profound and meaningful way.”
When President George W. Bush’s deputy press secretary Tony Fratto asked then-White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten to describe the method for vetting nominations, he recalled, Bolten replied, “We all come up with names and we argue over them. That’s the process.”
Joe Lockhart, who served as President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, described it as feeling “a little bit like sitting in a bar talking about who your favorite artist is, who your favorite musician is, who your favorite writer is.”
In many cases, it’s not enough to have earned distinction in a single field. One must be not just a star athlete but a civil rights champion, or an actor who was also a major philanthropist.Political calculations come into play with some nominees, as the president highlights cherished themes or pays tribute to specific interest groups.
Several of Bush’s honorees spoke to “the defense of freedom,” said Anita McBride, who as Laura Bush’s chief of staff participated in the vetting process. In 2007, Cuban dissident Oscar Elias Biscet received the medal while he was serving a 25-year prison sentence (he was freed four years later). Just days before leaving office, Bush gave the award in a joint ceremony to the leaders of three close allies in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Britain’s Tony Blair, Australia’s John Howard and Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe.
Obama has honored numerous political activists, even when it has sparked controversy. The president gave the award to former Irish president Mary Robinson, a prominent crusader for women’s and human rights, outraging some U.S. Jewish leaders who said she was too critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
And after sexual assault allegations surfaced against comedian Bill Cosby, the president said that there was no way to revoke his 2002 medal but that any civilized country “should have no tolerance for rape.”
Sometimes it takes years for someone to make the list. Or they may never make the cut. The late New York governor Hugh Carey’s name has come up multiple times during Obama’s time in office, according to a senior administration official, but he has never won. Fratto pushed for track star and civil and women’s rights activist Wilma Rudolph, who died in 1994. She, too, has never made the final list. And an aide to President Jimmy Carter tried to convince him in 1980 that actor Henry Fonda, a loyal Democrat, was more deserving than Kirk Douglas. But Carter had already signed off on Douglas, who enjoyed the backing of then-Motion Pictures Association of America president Jack Valenti, and didn’t make the switch.
The late Minoru Yasui, who spent nine months in solitary confinement for challenging a military curfew order targeting Japanese Americans during World War, was in the running more than once before getting it this year.
Jarrett said the president “views diversity as a strength, so therefore he may include somebody in one group rather than another to make sure it’s a well-rounded group.”
William D. Ruckelshaus, another 2015 awardee, is being honored in part because he refused to bow to pressure from Nixon as deputy attorney general and fire the Watergate special prosecutor in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. But 42 years later, he is also being honored because the lifelong Republican helped launch the Environmental Protection Agency, headed the EPA twice and brokered critical bipartisan conservation agreements long after leaving public office.
“It’s a very important thing to remind the country, and remind the party, that they have a stake in” environmental protection, said William K. Reilly, one of five former EPA administrators who urged Obama to recognize Ruckelshaus with the medal. The Obama administration’s two Cabinet members with chief responsibility for the environment, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, also wrote letters on Ruckelshaus’s behalf.
Many times, it is a personal connection that proves instrumental in securing presidential recognition. White House chief technology officer Megan Smith has admired 97-year old Katherine G. Johnson, who pioneered the way for both African Americans and women as one of NASA’s early mathematicians, for decades: She will receive her medal Tuesday. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack offered the name of John Doar, who served as assistant attorney general for civil rights under Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson: He received it in 2012, two years before his death.
Once the Berra museum began the petition drive, Lindsay Berra, a national correspondent for MLB.com, launched a frenetic social-media campaign. She enlisted other professional athletes to join the petition drive and tweeted at every celebrity spotted at a Yankees game with the hashtag #Yogimedal to garner more than the 100,000 signatures required for a White House response, more than a third of which came in the final 24 hours of the drive.
Berra died in September. He knew of the petition on his behalf but not that he would receive the medal. Jarrett said that in the end, it was the president’s personal admiration that mattered most: “He’s a huge fan of Yogi Berra, and that was the determining factor.”