Like the Eagles in the playoffs, the Liberty Medal is one of Philadelphia’s annual rites of shame. The city could sure use a break after stealing a neighbor’s art collection, having its orchestra pushed into bankruptcy, buying out its school superintendent with a small fortune, caving in to casino interests and anointing a convicted animal torturer as its most prominent public face. No such luck, however. A mysterious entity calling itself the National Constitution Center (NCC)—most visitors think it’s part of the Independence Mall complex until they get hit with the $12 admission fee—has, since 1989, set itself up as a prize-giver for “men and women of courage and conviction who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over.” Most people outside the city pay little, if any, attention to this, but recently a second-tier actress, Kim Delaney, suffered a mental wardrobe malfunction while awarding the prize to one of the nation’s leading warmongers, former Defense Secretary, Robert M. Gates. The whole country took notice.
Prizes in general should be confined to children and entertainers, and never associated with words such as “liberty” and “freedom.” Try to imagine Thomas Jefferson stepping up for an award. Three years ago, I took bemused note when Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who shrank his country by half, plunged it into a decade of ruin unprecedented since World War II, and went on to a lucrative career as a pitchman for Louis Vuitton luggage, received the Liberty Medal. This year’s unfortunate publicity prompts further review. The awards are, as I say, silly at best and side-splitting at worst, but their history says something about what we’ve come to in the past twenty-odd years.
The early winners of the Liberty Medal included Lech Walesa (its first recipient), Thurgood Marshall, Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela. These were anodyne enough choices. Others were a little bizarre—CNN International in 1997—but none of them, at least, offended the idea of liberty itself. However, the past ten years’ recipients, with a couple of merely ludicrous exceptions (Stephen Spielberg, Bono) constitute a veritable rogue’s gallery of high-profile villains. If this were simply the NCC’s whimsy, it could be dismissed as another right-wing outfit’s Trumpian view of the world. But the Liberty Medal ceremonies are attended by the mayor and other assorted dignitaries who represent the city itself, and therefore speak for us all.
Leaving aside Spielberg, who made a bad film about the Holocaust once and a good one about a shark, and Bono, who did some charity work, let us look at the decade’s roster. In 2002, the NCC honored General Colin Powell, then George W. Bush’s Secretary of State. Months later, Powell terminally disgraced himself by shilling at the UN for Bush’s invasion of Iraq—by common consent the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history, not to mention the twenty-first century’s prime example of naked aggression—based on concocted “evidence” that proved to contain not a single grain of truth. When the facts came out, Powell could have taken the Prussian officer’s way out, or at the very least resigned. He did neither.
The 2003 recipient was Sandra Day O’Connor, our first female Supreme Court justice, whose vote in Bush v. Gore was one of the five that put an unelected president in the White House. O’Connor’s commitment to the rule of law in a secular, pluralistic democracy was demonstrated when she wrote a personal letter in support of a Republican Party resolution declaring the United States to be “a Christian nation based on the absolute law of the Bible, not a democracy.” She was also heard to have remarked on election night 2000 that it would be a “terrible” thing for the country if Al Gore was to become president—a disaster she and her fellow malefactors on the Court proceeded to avert by halting the Florida recount.
The 2004 recipient of the Liberty Medal was Hamid Karzai. Enough said.
In 2005 the honoree was Victor Yushchenko, the newly-elected President of the Ukraine and the leader of its so-called Orange Revolution. Yushchenko, as some may recall, was the fellow allegedly poisoned with dioxin whose face was said to be grotesquely swollen and distorted as a result. Later reports described this as fiction. Yushchenko was also accused of being on the take from Boris Berezhovsky, the Russian billionaire and political fixer (his Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, faced similar charges and is now in jail). What is indisputable is that Yushchenko abruptly dissolved the Ukrainian parliament in violation of the country’s constitution, and that as the Ukrainian Constitutional Court was about to rule on the question, he dismissed three of its members. By the end of his term, 56 percent of the country favored his impeachment. Having been elected with 52 percent of the popular vote, he received 5.45 percent in seeking a second term.
In fairness, Gorbachev would probably have done worse. When he contemplated a run for the Russian presidency in the 1990s, he polled at 1 percent.
The NCC’s winners in 2006 were George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the ex-presidential Odd Couple. Bush’s credits included tearing up Panama in a dandy little war to rid it of a former CIA client turned liability, Manuel Noriega, and a war against another such client, Saddam Hussein. Both adventures were declared by executive fiat, the latter with a fig-leaf of Congressional “authorization,” thus inaugurating the post-Vietnam era of presidential wars. Clinton extended it by his unilateral air war to “free” Kosovo from Serbia, resulting in a NATO-sponsored statelet whose president has been accused of trafficking in human body parts.
Bono stepped up in 2007, Mikhail Gorbachev in 2008 and Steven Spielberg in 2009. Last year’s recipient was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is currently under investigation for his role in dragging Britain into the Iraq War under false pretenses—a charge that, courtesy of his successor, George W. Bush has thus far evaded.
Do we see a pattern here? Recipients of the Liberty Medal seem either to be chief executives who have dragged their countries into undeclared wars, or those who’ve served, directly or indirectly, as their handlers, enablers or colonial beneficiaries. The same is certainly true of Robert Gates, the Unseen Hand of the American empire. Gates spent 26 years in the CIA and NSA. In the 1980s, as chief deputy to William Casey, he was heavily implicated in attempts to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, the Iran-Contra scandal, and a variety of other capers. His own nomination as CIA Director in 1987 was scotched because of the latter episode. He turned up, though, as a senior advisor in the George H. W. Bush administration, in which capacity he helped facilitate the bloody overthrow of Noriega and the Gulf War against Iraq. Washington memories being conveniently short, he was re-nominated to head the CIA, and this time confirmed. With the elder Bush’s 1992 electoral defeat, he turned to the private sector, but was recalled by Bush Junior as Defense Secretary in 2006 after the dismissal of Donald Rumsfeld, and retained by Barack Obama until this spring. In this post, he was a principal architect of the surge strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan that has served to keep us mired in both wars. On his retirement, Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and he took up a position as Chancellor of William and Mary College as the successor to—Sandra Day O’Connor.
It’s a small world, at least as the NCC sees it. And it’s mostly composed of ex-generals, ex-presidents, ex-spooks, partisan jurists, and, for good measure, the front man for the world’s largest drug empire. Come to think of it, Thomas Jefferson really wouldn’t fit in with this crowd.
To be fair to Gates, he is a former president of the National Eagle Scout Association, and he did oppose our feckless (and also unconstitutional) invasion of Libya—the good deed that ended his public career, at least for now.
For that, and Kim Delaney, we can all be grateful.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history. He can be reached at [email protected].