The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian award,
which recognizes exceptional contributions to the security or national interests
of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public
or private endeavors. Among all American honors, it ranks second to only the
Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award. The medal was
established by President Truman in 1945 to recognize notable service in the war.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy reintroduced it as an honor for distinguished
civilian service in peacetime. While the medal may be awarded for singular acts
of importance, it is customarily given only for a lifetime of service or at the
conclusion of a distinguished career. With this criterion, it was altogether
fitting that the Medal of Freedom was presented to Herbert H. Lehman in 1964 for
35 years of service as both Lieutenant Governor (1928-1932) and Governor of New
York (1933-1942), Director-General of the United Nations Rehabilitation and
Relief Administration (1943-1946), and U.S. Senator from New York (1949-1956).
This particular award ceremony was significant in that it marked the
reintroduction of the medal as a civil honor, but the occasion was also saddened
by the absence of two men: John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated during the
previous November and Herbert Lehman himself, whose death in New York occurred
just minutes before his departure to Washington to receive the award. Lehman's
wife of over fifty years, Edith Altschul Lehman, journeyed to the White House
and accepted the medal on her late husband's behalf.
As the medal was presented to Mrs. Lehman, President Johnson read, "The
President of the United States of America awards this Presidential Medal of
Freedom to Herbert H. Lehman, citizen and statesman. He has used wisdom and
compassion as the tools of government and he has made politics the highest form
of public service." Mrs. Lehman accepted the award and replied, "I can't tell
you how honored I feel to accept this medal. I want to also say that the
knowledge that this medal was coming to him added a great deal to his last hours
of life." Among Lehman's fellow award recipients that year were: Thornton
Wilder, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, E. B. White, George Meany, Marian Anderson,
Edward Steichen, Felix Frankfurter and the late President John F. Kennedy.