WASHINGTON — President Trump on Friday awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian commendation.
He selected an eclectic mix of honorees famous in the world of sports, entertainment, law and politics: Babe Ruth. Elvis Presley. Roger Staubach, the former Navy and Dallas Cowboys quarterback. Alan Page, a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings who went on to become a state Supreme Court justice. Justice Antonin Scalia. Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah.
And Miriam Adelson.
Ms. Adelson, a doctor and philanthropist, is hardly a household name. But she is the spouse of Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate and multibillionaire. In 2016, the Adelsons provided badly needed backing for Mr. Trump, and in the recent midterm elections contributed more than $120 million to Republicans. And Mr. Adelson has a direct line to the president and helped to persuade him to move the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom, established by President John F. Kennedy, has always reflected a president’s personal tastes, biases and, sometimes, to be sure, political reward. President Barack Obama, for instance, awarded the medal to Warren Buffett, the legendary investor whose support in 2008 helped to give him credibility.
Kyle Kopko, a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania who has written scholarly reports on the medal-awarding process, said Mr. Trump had simply followed in that tradition.
“In fairness, there have been a number of recipients who were selected for their political dispositions — and I am sure that was a factor here,” Mr. Kopko said. “But I am sure it was not the only factor.”
“We probably oversimplify because, oh, the Adelsons gave a lot of money,” he said. “There are other factors that make Miriam Adelson an ideal candidate in Trump’s mind.”
Ms. Adelson and her husband established the Adelson Medical Research Foundation and two other research centers specializing in addiction treatment. “As a committed member of the American Jewish community, she has supported Jewish schools, Holocaust memorial organizations, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, and Birthright Israel, among other causes,” the White House said.
Still, it seems clear that Mr. Trump has taken the idea of rewarding a political supporter to new heights. And he has not made much of an attempt to show the kind of bipartisanship that previous presidents did in selecting honorees.
President Ronald Reagan selected Chief Justice Earl Warren, like him a former Republican governor of California but one whose liberal court was reviled by conservatives. President Reagan also draped a medal around the neck of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. President Bill Clinton gave the medal to former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas a year after the president defeated him in the 1996 election. Mr. Obama honored the first President George Bush.
Most of Mr. Trump’s choices — Justice Scalia, Mr. Hatch and Mr. Staubach, in addition to Ms. Adelson — are strong Republicans. Mr. Page has been aligned with the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota but his election was considered nonpartisan. Babe Ruth and Elvis Presley were not known to have clear partisan leanings.
Celebrities have long had a place on the podium: Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen are among recent winners. Robert De Niro was honored by Mr. Obama, a year before the actor had some unprintable words for Mr. Trump. Some recipients, like Mother Teresa and Norman Rockwell, are the safest of safe choices.
But the award does not always age well. Bill Cosby, who was recently convicted of sexual assault, was given the medal by President George W. Bush.
Mr. Trump chose to go far back in time in choosing Ruth, who had been dead longer than all but one other previous recipient, Mr. Kopko said. Mr. Trump was 2 when the Yankees slugger died, in 1948.
A man of many nicknames, “the Babe,” “the Bambino” and “the Sultan of Swat,” and perhaps the most famous baseball player, George Herman Ruth Jr. led the Yankees to seven American League pennants and four World Series championships. He was a prodigious fund-raiser for World War II causes.
Ruth was not notably active in politics but once famously defended his salary, which at the time was more than President Herbert Hoover was paid, by saying: “What the hell has Hoover got to do with this? Anyway, I had a better year than he did.”
Presley dominated American music and culture for decades, selling more than a billion records and starring in 31 films in a period of peak fame that coincided with Mr. Trump’s teenage years and young adulthood. He will be forever linked to another Republican president, Richard Nixon, because of the famous picture of the two shaking hands in 1970 that is among the most popular at the National Archives.
Justice Scalia, who died on Feb. 13, 2016, is frequently invoked by Mr. Trump as a model for a Supreme Court justice, known as a forceful writer and strong-willed voice of judicial conservatism. “He never backed down from the bedrock proposition that the Constitution ‘means and always will mean what it meant when it was adopted,’” the White House said.
Thanks to the stalling tactics of Senate Republicans, Justice Scalia’s death gave Mr. Trump the opportunity to name his successor, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, early in his presidency, a choice that has proved much more popular than his second choice for the court, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Mr. Hatch is the senior Republican member of the Senate, with more than four decades in office, and is retiring when his term ends in January. He has also been a strong supporter of the president, at one point saying Mr. Trump may be remembered as one of the finest in history. But he has also conceded that he didn’t always feel that way.
“Eight years ago to 10 years ago, Trump was not what I consider to be a pillar of virtue,” Mr. Hatch said. “I think he has changed a lot of his life once he was elected. I think Trump is a much better person today than he was then.”
Mr. Page and his fellow members of the Vikings defensive line were known as the Purple People Eaters. He played in four Super Bowls, and was named Most Valuable Player in 1971. He obtained his law degree while playing football and after retiring in 1981, practiced full time until he won a seat to the Minnesota state Supreme Court in 1992, where he served for more than 20 years.
Mr. Staubach, a Naval Academy graduate and Heisman Trophy winner, played 11 seasons for the Cowboys, winning two Super Bowls. He was known for his scrambling style and ability to elude defenders. After his football career, Mr. Staubach had a successful career in commercial real estate.