Judge James Buckley deserves the Medal of Freedom for a lifetime of public service

Brett M. Decker, Opinion columnist

President Donald Trump conferring the Presidential Medal of Freedom on radio host Rush Limbaugh during this year’s State of the Union address has brought newfound attention to the award. Despite liberal gripes about Limbaugh’s ideology, it is commonplace for presidents to give this distinction to political fellow travelers.

President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to counterculture folk singer Bob Dylan and actress and LGBTQ activist Ellen DeGeneres. In an uncanny way, the swinging pendulum of views held by recipients of the award symbolizes the healthy debate in the marketplace of ideas that is our democracy.

As Trump considers future honorees, there is an opportunity to call attention to someone who has been an articulate voice on the public stage while also dedicating a lifetime to selfless public service. Judge James Buckley fits the bill.

Buckley before the Senate

One of the few in history to hold senior positions in all three branches of the federal government, Buckley has been a U.S. senator, undersecretary of State and ambassador, and retired as a judge on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He served in the Navy in the Pacific Theater in World War II.

During the Cold War, Buckley played a key part in President Ronald Reagan’s successful two-pronged strategy to defeat the Soviet Union by bankrupting Moscow through a costly arms race that the inefficient socialist economy could not afford, and by undermining the legitimacy of the regime by publicly attacking the evils of the communist system. As president of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, Buckley led America’s operations to broadcast hopeful messages about freedom, democracy and capitalism to millions suffering behind the Iron Curtain.

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“We are operating on the basis that human beings are entitled to facts … they are entitled to know what is happening,” Buckley explained in 1983 about radio’s ability to bring the truth to totalitarian countries where news and information were censored by state-run media. “We are reporting facts. … Straight news reporting tells the story better than any kind of commentary.” 

Trump should embrace Buckley

On the domestic policy front, putting Buckley on a pedestal would further the White House’s commitment to the pro-life cause, a priority that Trump emphasized this year by being the first president to attend and speak in person at the March for Life in Washington. As a senator, the devoutly Catholic Buckley authored the original Human Life Amendment and other bills seeking to roll back the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

Rush Limbaugh after being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union address on Feb. 4, 2020.

Embracing a Buckley could be a milestone for Trump, who has been viewed with skepticism by some conservatives, most notably at the National Review magazine founded by the judge’s late brother, William F. Buckley, the intellectual godfather of the modern conservative movement. Today, the president is overwhelmingly supported by the movement, as evidenced by his record-high 90% approval rating among Republicans nationwide.

Bestowing Judge Buckley with the nation’s highest civilian honor would celebrate the man for his role in government, champion the value of public service in general, and mark the contemporary coming together of the establishment and populist wings of an ascendant conservatism.

Brett M. Decker, an assistant professor of business at Defiance College in Ohio and member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is a former editor for The Wall Street Journal and co-author of “The Conservative Case for Trump.” Follow him on Twitter: @BrettMDecker

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Judge Buckley deserves the Medal of Freedom for a life of service