DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A king, a senator and a sultan will be honored at the White House this afternoon. President Trump is presenting the nation's highest civilian honor to seven people that also includes Elvis Presley and Babe Ruth. The president decides who gets the Medal of Freedom. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on what these picks tell us about Trump.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S NOW OR NEVER")
ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) It's now or never.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Elvis Presley left the building for good more than 40 years ago, and Babe Ruth's been gone more than 70, but you can soon add the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Elvis's gold records and Ruth's batting titles. President Trump picked the honorees after getting suggestions from staff members, Cabinet secretaries and the public.
FLETCHER MCCLELLAN: This is a fascinating way to find out what is important to a president. And in President Trump's case, we get to learn more about what make America great means to him.
HORSLEY: That's Fletcher McClellan, a political scientist at Elizabethtown College. He's part of a team that's catalogued all 500-plus Medals of Freedom since the award was launched by President Kennedy. McClellan suggests honoring Presley and Ruth might signal Trump's nostalgic yearning for America as it was in the last century. He says they're also safe picks for the president. More contemporary artists and athletes have sometimes spurned Trump's invitations.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RETURN TO SENDER")
PRESLEY: (Singing) Return to sender.
HORSLEY: Some of Trump's choices are unsurprising - late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, for example, and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who's retiring after 41 years. Trump is also the first president to extend the honor to a couple of pro football stars, including Roger Staubach, whom McClellan calls an easy choice.
MCCLELLAN: You know, a Heisman Trophy winner, a Naval Academy graduate. He served his country. Quarterbacks the Dallas Cowboys, America's team. It's owned by Jerry Jones, who is a Trump supporter. The big surprise to me is Alan Page.
HORSLEY: Page, who had a Hall of Fame career with the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, went on to serve more than 20 years as a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. While Trump has criticized NFL players who protest police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem, Page has defended those players, as he did here on WCCO television.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALAN PAGE: What Paul Robeson said was, the answer to injustice is not to silence the critics, it is to end the injustice.
HORSLEY: Trump's final pick for the Medal of Freedom is Miriam Adelson, who's described as a committed doctor, philanthropist and humanitarian. She's also a GOP mega-donor along with her husband, the billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIVA LAS VEGAS")
PRESLEY: (Singing) Viva Las Vegas.
HORSLEY: Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics says, in the 2018 election cycle alone, the Adelsons gave more than $113 million to Republican or conservative campaigns.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: This is a power couple that really cuts a pass in U.S. politics and has been a major benefactor to the Republican Party for many years.
HORSLEY: Financial supporters have been honored in the past, although usually not so close to an election. Sheldon Adelson was at the White House last Tuesday for a midterm election watch party. The Medal of Freedom honorees were announced just four days later. McClellan's research shows presidents typically don't get any political boost from these awards - if anything, their approval ratings go down. So if Trump winds up in the doghouse for bestowing the nation's highest civilian honor on a big campaign contributor, he won't be alone.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU AIN'T NOTHING BUT A HOUND DOG")
PRESLEY: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog.
HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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