On This Day: Ronald Reagan Awards Actor Jimmy Stewart Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985

by Jennifer Shea
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On May 23, 1985, then-President Ronald Reagan awarded actor Jimmy Stewart the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Stewart was a Hollywood contemporary of Reagan’s, and the president considered him a friend, according to a White House diary entry from that day. Frank Sinatra also got a medal that day.

Reagan further promoted Stewart, a military veteran, to Major General on the Retired List, per Historic Newspapers. And he celebrated Stewart’s best-known film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in his remarks before dispensing the medals.

“You’ve left humanity a legacy, and on behalf of the American people, Nancy and I want to congratulate you,” Reagan said to the recipients at the ceremony that afternoon. “You’ve inspired and uplifted your fellow men and women, and we want you never to forget that. And we’re grateful to you for it.”

Watch a video of Ronald Reagan’s remarks at the ceremony here:

Jimmy Stewart Lived a Full Life

While Stewart studied architecture at Princeton, his true passion was acting, so after college he joined the University Players on Cape Cod, the New York Times reported. Henry Fonda was also a member of the summer stock company, and the two became lifelong friends.

From there, Stewart went to Broadway, and in 1934 he landed his first major role, in “Yellow Jack.” By 1935, Stewart had a contract with MGM. He made his film debut in “The Murder Man” with Spencer Tracy.

When America joined World War II, Stewart became the first Hollywood star to enter the military. He wanted to be a combat pilot, so he racked up 300 hours of flying before he was inducted. He would go on to lead 20 bombing missions over Germany and win approximately a dozen decorations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross twice.

Upon his return from war, Stewart shunned studio deals and instead freelanced, pioneering the percentage deal, which granted him up to half the profits from movies he starred in. Stewart also invested wisely and became a multimillionaire.

Stewart’s favorite movies were reportedly Westerns, “because they’re told against the background of a very dramatic period in our history” and often carry a life-affirming message, he said.

The actor died in 1997 at age 89 from a blood clot in his lung. He passed away at his home in Beverly Hills.

Ronald Reagan Became First Living President to Also Receive the Medal

Reagan presented 85 Presidential Medals of Freedom during his time in the White House. But after his presidency ended, he became the first living former president to receive the medal himself. In 1993, President George H.W. Bush awarded Reagan the Presidential Medal of Freedom because, Bush said, he “helped win one for freedom.”

“Always Ronald Reagan embodied the heart of the American people,” Bush said in presenting the award that January. “And once he described it as ‘hopeful, bighearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair.’ Ronald Reagan didn’t just make the world believe in America; he made Americans believe in themselves.”  

Bush credited Reagan with the longest peacetime boom in American history, helping the private sector create 19 million new jobs and cutting taxes on American citizens. And for his belief that liberty would win the Cold War, Bush called Reagan “a prophet in his time.”

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