It’s a motley bunch. The Adelsons have been crucial backers of the president’s. Hatch has, too, saying that Trump could be the greatest president in history. Scalia is a totem for Trump, and filling his seat has been one of the president’s biggest accomplishments. Staubach and Page are classic Medal of Freedom picks—popular athletes with successful post-sports careers—though both have also been sharply critical of Trump at times. And then there’s Elvis and the Babe—the King and the Sultan, the unusual ones.
To see what makes Trump’s batch distinctive, it’s useful to review the people whom his predecessors chose. Take George W. Bush, a product of the conservative movement and a sports fan who famously valued loyalty. Thus Bush’s picks include a number of Cold Warriors or heroes of the post-war era: Vaclav Havel, Pope John Paul II, Edward Teller, and Van Cliburn, though also the former Communist Nelson Mandela. Though Bush’s intellect was often mocked, he chose a number of conservative intellectuals and authors: Robert Conquest, William Safire, Robert Bartley, James Q. Wilson, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz. He also honored veterans of the Reagan administration, which he revered, including Nancy Reagan and Laurence Silberman.
Bush never seemed all that concerned about seeming cool, and his pop-culture picks reflected that: pre-disgrace Bill Cosby, Andy Griffith (a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat), Fred Rogers. He also picked many athletes, but chose a notably multicultural bunch: Hank Aaron, John Wooden, Roberto Clemente, Muhammad Ali, Frank Robinson, and Negro League legend Buck O’Neil. Of course, as a golf aficionado, he had to include Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, too.
Finally, Bush chose a great number of people who’d been loyal to him or stuck by him even through some of his notable presidential misadventures, including foreign leaders (Tony Blair, Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe) and government appointees (L. Paul Bremer, George Tenet, Generals Tommy Franks and Richard Myers).
Obama’s crew was glitzier, more focused on culture—from high- to middle-brow—and packed with icons of Boomer cool. Despite Obama’s reputation for brains, he picked fewer intellectuals than Bush. There were a great number of athletes, many of them black (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Willie Mays, Bill Russell). Stan Musial was celebrated for advocating for the integration of Major League Baseball. University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith had been an outspoken liberal. Hollywood was often celebrated—Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres, Robert de Niro, Robert Redford, Cicely Tyson, Steven Spielberg—and so was Obama’s iPod: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Diana Ross. There were some upper-middle-brow artists, too, like Frank Gehry and Steven Sondheim.