WASHINGTON — Flanked by a lineup of accomplished scholars, an entertainer, an ophthalmologist and a golfer with his own army of fans, President Bush awarded 13 Presidential Medals of Freedom on Wednesday.
The nation's highest civilian honor went to, among others, "West Side Story" star Rita Moreno, retired professional golfer Arnold Palmer, conservative intellectuals Robert Bartley and Norman Podhoretz, financier Walter Wriston, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Gordon B. Hinckley, cosmetics entrepreneur Estee Lauder, Pope John Paul II, and actress and animal activist Doris Day.
The list had a wide variety of professional and cultural leaders, but was notable -- for political hounds, anyway -- for a clear pattern.
"This is an example of what an incumbent can do, but what a challenger can only dream of doing. Anybody will accept this gladly, come to the White House and help you send a message to important constituency groups," said Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.
No one has expressed concern over the winners' credentials or accomplishments. (The most publicly expressed doubt was from a winner herself. Day, who did not attend Wednesday's ceremony, told Associated Press that when she heard she was being awarded the medal her response was, "For what?") But in an election year, few awards, prizes or proclamations are calculated without some use of electoral math.
In electoral-speak, the 2004 medals included a nod to the Republican base, a reach to critical swing voters, and some wishful thinking.
In the "base" category were three conservative thinkers who helped to lay the intellectual groundwork of the "Reagan revolution": Wriston, the retired chairman of Citibank and a former Reagan advisor; Bartley, who edited the Wall Street Journal's editorial page for more than three decades; and Podhoretz, a writer and longtime editor of Commentary magazine. Reagan himself received the medal in 1993.
Bush called Podhoretz a man of "fierce intellect" who never "tailored his opinion to please others." Wriston's daughter and son-in-law accepted the medal on his behalf; Bartley accepted his shortly before his death in December.
During the ceremony, Bush commended Moreno, a Tony-, Oscar- and Emmy-winning performer, for "opening new opportunities for Hispanic artists." Candidates in both parties have frequently made an effort to acknowledge the contributions of Latinos this year. Bush won an estimated 35% of the Latino vote in 2000, and many experts say he will have to get at least that level of support to win in November.
Leaders of another sought-after voting bloc -- the nation's churchgoers -- were also honored. The pope accepted his award during Bush's recent visit to the Vatican. Hinckley leads the nation's Mormons, a political force in several key Western states.
And what about Lauder?
"Well, [Bush has] a real problem with professional women," Sabato said. According to the Times' most recent poll of registered voters, women favor Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) by 13 percentage points.
The award to Lauder, who died April 24, was accepted by her sons.
Another recipient was Edward W. Brooke, the first African American elected by popular vote to the Senate, where he represented Massachusetts as a Republican from 1967 to 1979. The GOP has long struggled to make inroads with the black electorate.
Bush particularly enjoyed awarding the medal to Palmer, whose devoted fans were known as Arnie's Army. In his remarks, Bush quoted announcer Vin Scully on Palmer: "In a sport that was high society, Arnold Palmer made it high noon."
Scholar and historian Vartan Gregorian, National Geographic Society chairman Gilbert M. Grosvenor and groundbreaking ophthalmologist Arnall Patz were also honored.