Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom

October 09, 1981

The President. Ladies and gentlemen, I don't know why I should think of this at this lovely luncheon with all of you here today, but I did think of it. Many years ago in the days of austerity in England, after the Labor government had just gotten in, I'd arrived for the royal command performance at the Savoy Hotel. I went down to the dining room and knew that there was rationing and you couldn't get food such as we've had today, but then on the menu I saw pheasant. And I thought, well, you can't go wrong if you can get pheasant. So, I ordered pheasant. I didn't know about their custom of serving game birds. And the waiter came in and with a flourish removed the silver lid, and I was looking at a bird that was looking back at me. [Laughter] The head and the ruff were on, the eyes were open, the big yellow legs were there attached to him. So, it did kind of curb my appetite a little. [Laughter]

But the very next day, Virginia Mayo and her husband, Michael O'Shea, arrived. And we went down to the dining room together. And I saw his eyes stop—I just knew, at the same place on the menu. I knew what was in his mind, and he ordered. Then I waited and didn't say a word. [Laughter] And the same flourish and the silver lid removed and there was that bird looking at him, but he topped me. As the waiter started away, he grabbed him by the coattail, and the waiter, surprised, stopped. And Mike said, "Bring me liniment and I'll have that bird flying again in 15 minutes." [Laughter]

Now, that story has absolutely nothing to do with today's luncheon. [Laughter] Well, maybe if I reach a little it does, because we have some high fliers here with us today who have flown, in the line of achievement in their own lives and in their service to humanity, very high.

The President's medal of freedom is the highest civilian honor that's given in the United States. 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. The names of those who have received this honor are stars in the American sky—Helen Keller, Aaron Copland, Walt Disney, Carl Sandburg, General Omar Bradley, Dr. Jonas Salk, Jessie Owens. The list goes on through the most illustrious and prominent of our citizens.

And today, we're adding the names of Charles (Tex) Thornton, a man whose energy and enterprise are symbolic of America herself; Morris Leibman, an honored American possessing a fine legal mind and a true humanitarian heart; Walter Judd, a doctor who ministered to the world's need for freedom and liberty; Bryce Harlow, an architect of public policy whose contributions have strengthened our democracy's political process; Ella Grasso, a genuine public servant who fought against death as she fought for political principle, with dignity; and Eubie Blake, an historical figure in American performing arts and one of the greatest ragtime composers and pianists.

Now, let me tell you how these six recipients have strengthened our freedom by reading to you something the historian Edward Gibbon wrote about ancient Athens, the first democracy and the fountainhead of Western culture. He wrote that when the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.

The recipients today have given greatly to our society in music, public service, and humanitarian activities. They've met their responsibilities to freedom. By giving of themselves and their energies, they've kept this society diverse, and in diversity there is liberty.

Perhaps this award is called the Medal of Freedom also because our Nation allowed these great Americans to pursue their interests unhindered. And when individuals are free to follow their hearts and talents, the common good benefits. America has given these honorees freedom, and they've discharged that responsibility with brilliant distinction.

Let me read the citation and present the medal to each recipient who will then, we hope, say a few words to us.

To Charles B. (Tex) Thornton:

[At this point, the President read the citation, the text of which follows:]

Industrialist, warrior and humanitarian, Tex Thornton's life has embodied all that is best in the worlds of commerce, military service and civic duty. In all three realms, Tex Thornton has never failed to give generously of his boundless energy, his unfailing courage, and his deep love of country. In war and peace, in public service and the private sector, Tex Thornton has earned the esteem of all Americans who value patriotism, enterprise and compassion as cornerstones of our nation's greatness.

And we regret in sorrow that because of his health, he cannot be here to accept this in person. But we're pleased that his son, Charles Bates Thornton, Jr. is here to accept for his father.

Mr. Thornton. Thank you, Mr. President. I'm privileged to accept this award on behalf of my father who, as you know, could not be here today. He wanted very much to come, however. He asked me to tell you though that he feels very fortunate to have had the opportunities afforded by this great country of ours and to have been able to serve it and to strive to contribute to its success.

Perhaps only those who matured in the last Depression, as he did, can best appreciate just how far we, as a Nation, have come in the last half century and the effort and the sacrifice it took to get here.

Even though his active role is drawing to a close, he is grateful to have played a part. He recognizes that the challenges before us remain enormous, yet is confident that this Nation's new leadership will guide us on the proper course—a course which does not reject the past in which he has played a part, but which lets us build on our accomplishments and learn from our mistakes.

I can think of no one more respected by him than you, Mr. President. It is therefore deeply touching that you have honored him in this way. And that makes this award all the more meaningful to him, to our mother, and to the two younger generations of our family here today.

Thank you.

The President. Morris I. Leibman:

[At this point, the President read the citation, the text of which follows:]

Attorney, teacher, scholar and philanthropist, Morris Leibman is living proof that a full career in the private sector can flourish hand in hand with civic and humanitarian duties. As a generous patron of the arts and charities, as a legal scholar as well as practitioner, as a founding member of the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies and as chairman of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Law and National Security, Morris Leibman has served selflessly to make America a just, healthy society within and a strong, secure nation without.

Mr. Leibman. Thank you, Mr. President. In the shadow of the assassination of recent hours, we thank the Lord that you, Mr. President, are here with us today. And we continue to be inspired by your courage and total commitment.

I and the other awardees, I feel certain, are humbled by the privilege of participating in this ceremony. We understand that on this occasion, we represent millions of citizens dedicated to our free society. This is an occasion of remembrance and rededication—remembrance of America's uniqueness, the noble experiment of government by melting pot of free people; rededication to your leadership and guidance to meaningful patriotism, to national purpose, to national will and strength and credibility.

Our great American ideals and goals lose vitality without vibrant expression. You, Mr. President, have established yourself as the great communicator, a most important aspect of leadership in this world of competing and conflicting ideologies. A number of us present here today have struggled with the problem of improving the systems, forms, and structures for communicating American foreign policy, nationally and internationally. Under your leadership and under your Presidency, we eagerly renew our dedication to this effort and look forward to working with you in your great responsibility for continuing the dialog of Western civilization and the preservation of the free world.

Thank you, Mr. President.

The President. Walter H. Judd:

[At this point, the President read the citation, the text of which follows:]

Legislator, physician, missionary and orator, Walter Judd has served his nation and mankind with unfailing courage and distinction—as a youthful medical missionary in China, as a highly respected Member of Congress for two decades, and as a lifelong foe of tyranny and friend of freedom both at home and abroad. The skills of a healer, the eloquence of a great communicator, and his firm grasp of domestic and international affairs have made Walter Judd an articulate spokesman for all those who cherish liberty and a model for all Americans who aspire to serve mankind as physicians, spiritual leaders and statesmen.

Dr. Judd. To respond, of course, Mr. President, to your conferring on me so extraordinary an honor as this means that I must borrow Mr. Shakespeare's words: I can no other answer make save thanks and thanks and ever thanks.

I'm glad that this medal is called the Medal of Freedom. Concern for that greatest of all our blessings in this beautiful land has been, I think, a consistent and at least a major influence in my own life and motivation.

Freedom has been central to the efforts I made as a missionary in China, and as a political missionary in the House of Representatives and, in these last 19 years, as what might perhaps be called, "missionaryat-large," especially to the colleges and high schools of our country, working with the youth to help develop a deeper understanding of what freedom makes possible—as has been demonstrated in these other awards-and what freedom requires.

Whenever I find my battery is running down, I like to go over to the monument, not so far from here, erected to the memory of that great American patriot who wrote down in immortal words the fundamental faith and philosophy which gave our Nation its birth and its greatness, Thomas Jefferson.

You've been there. And on the corona, in giant letters above his head, are these words of his personal declaration: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Now, that, to the best of my ability, has been the basic standard by which I tried to judge which of the various solutions being offered for this, that, or the other difficult problem for our country was right or nearest right. And that's what we're trying to do in retirement.

If followed, those principles and policies, would they strengthen the oppressor or would they strengthen the oppressed? Where does the United States stand—with wisdom and a recognition of timing and what's appropriate and what is possible at a given moment?

Now, I believe, Mr. President, that you and I and all of us in this blessed land were born to be free. And if we were born to be free, then so were the Czechs and the Poles and the Cubans and the Chinese and the Cambodians and the Afghans. And if they weren't born to be free, neither were we.

Now, this is not a note, I hope, a note of gloom or despair. On the contrary, it's the main basis for confidence and hope for our future. Surely the universe is on the side of human freedom, including the nature of the man and the nature of the woman. They can be arrested human beings. They can be in prison. They can be starved and brainwashed and beaten and sent to concentration camps and liquidated. But they cannot be separated in the end from that which is in them from their Creator—the urge to be free.

So, Mr. President, it's an honor not only for me, but for all of us in this land, to be joined with you in this noblest of crusades: Freedom.

The President. Thank you, Walter.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, Bryce N. Harlow:

[At this point, the President read the citation, the text of which follows:]

Counselor to Presidents and sage observer of nearly half a century of Washington history, Bryce Harlow's vision, integrity and persuasiveness have helped to shape his nation's destiny as leader of the Free World. Never a candidate for elected office himself, his experience and advice have helped bring out the best in countless public servants of both parties, in the White House, in the Congress and across the nation. Bryce Harlow is a sterling example of the positive side of politics—a life spent reconciling divergent interests, serving high moral principles, and channeling the forces of public policy toward the public good.

Mr. Harlow. Mrs. Reagan, please don't consider me discourteous, I'm standing up. [Laughter]

I thank you, Mr. President, very, very much. And that eloquent citation—I wish I had said it. I love every word in it. Thank you. [Laughter] The Harlow contingent here very deeply appreciates the great honor paid us, both by this very special award and by your personal participation. I mean that particularly, your personal participation in these proceedings, because we all know the vast energy and time drain on the President of the United States.

Now, this has come, of course, this award and all, the whole affair, as a tremendous surprise to me, as I guess it has perhaps to the others. When Mike Deaver called me about it last week, to alert me to it, I said, interrupted him, and I said, "Mr. Deaver, you've got a bad mistake on your hands. You have the wrong man and the wrong telephone number and you'd better hang up and start over." [Laughter] But then he said the nicest thing in my life, he said, "Oh, no. No," he said, "I've got the right man. It's you, Bryce Harlow." And I think that was music. I was afraid I was right and he was wrong. [Laughter]

The best I can figure it, Mr. President, the part of this award that is concerned with me, is my public service not my private service to the private sector. And that's the part that concerns me most—the public service started when you were 27 years old. This is when I came to Washington from Oklahoma City. I came here to spend 1 year and to complete my education and then go back to Oklahoma and teach school. Well, that never did happen. Things happened to me instead. The war came-that's for one. And then came Truman and Eisenhower and all the rest and a whole phantasmagoria of spectaculars. We all remember the gigantic events of our country and the world.

Somehow, and for reasons I don't to this day understand, I got entangled, embroiled, enmeshed in those activities, in those issues of those times. And in the course of that, I got involved and entangled with a great host of our national leaders, like the great Walter Judd and many others. And so, I spent nearly all of those years, Mr. President, working with the leaders of our country in the Congress and in the executive branch, including here at the White House, and the leadership of the Armed Forces during the war in the high command.

Now, the point that's relevant about that to this meeting is just simply this: It's not that I come—[inaudible]—but that I was never a leader in any of that. I was never the front man. I was never the boss or the chief. I was always the behind-the-scenes fellow. I was always the assistant, the counselor, if you will.

Well now, if that's true, and it is, what am I doing here? I think that's a good question. Why would one with a career so unobtrusive, retiree, be here, receiving an award so utterly prestigious? That fascinated me greatly when I was called by Mike Deaver. And I came to this thought. Apparently here somewhere, and I hope it's you, Mr. President, came to the idea, "Well, this little "go-fer" for Uncle Sam— [laughter] -and all his wanderings for four decades, did, in his own right, perhaps working for and through and around the great people, helping them, enough for our country to make him worthwhile."

Now, if that is true, if that's the reason that this comes to me, then I say it's absolutely marvelous—not because of me, Mr. President, but because I am projected across the country in millions of people who are working their tails off, getting little attention at all, who are working, who are loyal, who have the integrity, who are doing for their bosses, and doing for their bosses causes, expecting no recognition whatever.

And here's what I think may happen. Some of them will see about this award, maybe. Some of them may even see it some way or hear about it or read about it. And he'll say, "Hey, Joe, did you see where President Reagan gave a kind of a medal to this little fellow Harlow?" [Laughter] And he'll say, "No, what for?" He'll say, "For doing what we're doing." "Oh, we'd better work harder, hadn't we? We might get one." Mr. President, if it works like that, how beautiful it fits in with your program to constantly improve the quality, the standards, the productivity of American life.

Thank you, sir.

The President. Bryce, you know it's been common language that this particular job must be a very lonely place. It isn't really all that lonely, and now we all know why.

To Ella T. Grasso, to be accepted by her husband, Dr. Thomas A. Grasso.

[At this point, the President read the citation, the text of which follows:]

Long before the women's movement had gained prominence, Ella Grasso had already begin the long, hard ascent to distinction as an elected public servant. A fond wife and mother, she proved that it is possible to reconcile a full family life with a long and eventful political career. As a champion of moral as well as political principle, Mrs. Grasso won the respect of fellow citizens of both parties and served as the first woman governor to be elected to office in her own right. Tireless in the pursuit of duty and courageous in the face of illness, Ella Grasso has earned the admiration of all Americans as a legislator, a governor and a woman of outstanding character and achievement.

Dr. Grasso. Mr. President, I thank you very much for this signal honor. I haven't prepared anything officially; I'd like to speak to you from my heart.

Today is a bittersweet day in my life. We have been here under five Presidents, President Kennedy, President Johnson, President Nixon, President Ford, President Carter, and now you, Mr. President. I know this is the last time that I'll be here, because it was through the good fortune of Ella, my dear wife, that we were invited here. Ah, bittersweet, I say. It's bitter because of the loss of Ella. However, it's a happy occasion because she has been selected, or was selected as a recipient of this medal. It's unfortunate that the other brand has to present it to us. [Laughter] Let me go over that again. [Laughter] Very good.

Ella was an adviser to Presidents, U.S. Senators, Congressmen, and women and people interested in politics. She was a strange mixture of many, many things. She had integrity, sympathy, understanding. She was straight as an arrow. She was a good wife, an excellent mother and, above all, brought to politics a certain integrity that our good President is attempting to bring.

I think that this country lacks that type of person. And I, personally, and I know Ella, admired President Reagan very much. You know, in politics you have to do many things. The first thing you must do is get elected. And many times in getting elected, you know, you have to get elected.

And you fill in the valleys about what I am trying to say. Ella lived courageously. She died courageously. She died with a prayer on her lips.

And I am indeed honored to receive this medal, and I shall take it home and, of all the credits she has received, my son and daughter will not get this medal—I'm keeping it myself. [Laughter] Thank you.

The President. Now, I'm going to switch microphones, if you will bear with me for a moment.

This last one is to James H. (Eubie) Blake:

[At this point, the President read the citation, the text of which follows:]

Last of the great ragtime composers and pianists, the son of slaves, and a pioneer crusader for Black Americans in the world of arts and entertainment, Eubie Blake is a national treasure. As pianist, showman and, above all, as composer, he has added immeasurably to America's musical heritage and helped to clear the way for succeeding generations of talented artists who, but for his example, might have been denied access to the artistic mainstream.

And I understand that Eubie is going to respond in his own inimitable and unique way. He is 98 years old, he told me.

Mr. Blake. Ninety-eight and a Haitian

The President. Ninety-eight and a half! [Laughter and applause]

Mr. Blake. Mr. President, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

The President. There just happens to be a piano here. [Laughter]

[At this point, Mr. Blake played a ragtime version of "Memory of You" on the piano.]

Mr. Blake. All I ever wanted to do was play the piano. You know, my mother used to say that, "You ain't ever going to be nothing but a piano plunker." And you know, that's what I am, a piano plunker. [Applause]

The President. Eubie, thank you very much.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think because of six Americans, some of whom couldn't be here, but were represented, all of us go away a little bit better, and better Americans because of them. And now my saddest words: I have to say I have to leave you because I am scheduled to sign a proclamation for the fellow that I guess made it all possible—the Columbus Day Proclamation. [Laughter] And the time has caught up with me, so I'm going to go and say a thank you to Christopher Columbus, with the Spanish Ambassador in attendance, too, because they did it together. [Laughter]

Thank you all very much for being here. God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 1:12 p.m. at a luncheon honoring the medal recipients in the East Room at the White House. Prior to the luncheon and presentation ceremony, the President hosted a reception for the award winners in the Blue Room.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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