It would be easy to look at an award like the Presidential Medal of Freedom (thus renamed during John F. Kennedy's term in office) and try to read political cronyism or pandering into a particular president's choices, but research doesn't support the argument. It may be that George H.W. Bush's award to Douglas Dillon in 1989, or Bill Clinton's to Morris Udall in 1996, were political thank-you notes, not to mention a few awards over the years that may have been the thank-you-in-advance notes sometimes popular in election years. But in looking at a list of the musicians who have received this country's highest civilian honor, the choices have largely indicated a president's personal tastes. In re- establishing the award just before his untimely death, John F. Kennedy had selected Pablo Casals, Rudolf Serkin and Marian Anderson. During Ronald Reagan's presidency, he chose (among others) Pearl Bailey, Eubie Blake, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie and Kate Smith to receive it. It's hard to argue with giving any of those people a medal, no matter what your political allegiances are.
This last May 29th, the president's medal was given to Bob Dylan, another honoree I wouldn't argue with. Many people remember that he is associated with the civil rights movement, including a performance as part of the historic Great March on Washington on August 28, 1963, at which Martin Luther King delivered his stirring "I Have A Dream" speech. What many people do not know is that later that same year, chafing at being pigeon-holed, he had occasion to say a few unexpected words about music and political protest. On his receiving the Tom Paine Award that December 13th at the Emergency Civil Liberties Union's annual Bill of Rights dinner, he sensed that his recent celebrity was being exploited for something he didn't entirely agree with. He received the award, but said he was accepting it on behalf of Philip Luce, an American who had led a group to Cuba in protest of the U.S. embargo against that country. Then he startled the crowd by saying, "There's no black and white, left and right, to me anymore. There's only up and down, and down is very close to the ground, and I'm trying to go up without thinking about anything trivial such as politics." His comments shouldn't have come as a shock to anyone familiar with his music, but the crowd responded by booing him. Later, in Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary film about Dylan, No Direction Home, the songwriter said: "I was up close when King was giving that speech. To this day it still affects me in a profound way." But as for his use as a movement figurehead, he commented, "You know, they were trying to build me up as a topical songwriter. I was never a topical songwriter to begin with. For whatever reasons they were doing it ... reasons, not really ... that didn't really apply to me."
The Political Season
Musical taste is based on freedom of choice. Whether you are the President of the United States or President of the Professional Musicians Local 47 in Los Angeles, you get to decide what music is pleasing to you based strictly on your own preferences. Performing it or listening to it, you get to decide for yourself what sounds good to your ears. It's personal. You can like whatever sort of music you wish, and it should be easy to allow others to like whatever they like, and make their own choices. Your choices and theirs can be as different as can be, exist side by side, without ever interfering with each other.
Not so with politics. The concept of the word politics, which derives from the Greek politikos, means "of, for or relating to citizens." In the arduous business of governing thee and me, and the navigation of that murky swamp known as public policy, it seems the basic urge to collaborate with the rest of humankind is so great that eventually one becomes involved in managing other people's liveswhere possible, getting them to adhere to one's own beliefs and ideals, and where it's not, at least preventing them from interfering with one's own. As the citizenry grows and mistakes are made, the bad decisions and their consequences are regretted, rationalized, and explained away; or they run afoul of another basic urge, the disastrously self-defeating desire to abdicate one's responsibilities and obligations to someone else.