Paul Greenberg

Foreign honors and imitations thereof don't seem to thrive on this side of the Atlantic, prestigious as they may be back in Europe.

Consider the annual presentation of Presidential Medals of Freedom, our version of Britain's honors list, which by now must include the names of thousands of honorees. Who can remember them all? Or any of them.

Maybe the Medal of Freedom is supposed to be our equivalent of the Legion of Honor in France, which dates back to Napoleonic times. Its design has had to be changed over the years and regimes, as the empire gave way to a succession of republics. (The French always did keep up with fashion, whether sartorial or political.)

By now the annual announcement of Medal of Freedom recipients at the White House has all the style of any other celebrityfest. It's become a regularly scheduled event, like the Oscars, rather than a recognition of rare distinction. It's long had the look and flavor of an imported product rather than one rooted in native soil. Much like the comic-opera uniforms Richard Nixon once imposed on the White House guards for a mercifully brief time.

Still, some of the names on the list of those being honored with a Medal of Freedom stand out every year. They're usually the names of figures being awarded the medal posthumously. Maybe because their merit has survived their death, or even been emphasized by it.

This year's list, for example, included Daniel Inouye's name. He'd earned the Medal of Honor long ago -- in recognition of his heroism in the European theater with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated military unit in American history. Only later would he become a mere senator. Some of us have always wondered what the Germans must have thought when they found themselves being cut to pieces by American troops who looked Japanese. ("Is there something the Fuehrer hasn't told us?")

Another honoree this year was the late Sally Ride, the scholar-astronaut who not only took part in American space missions but took a leading part in investigating them when they turned into American tragedies. Her death last year -- of pancreatic cancer -- remains a fresh and painful loss.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.