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Highest Honor

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White House Chief Usher Gary Walters retired from government this month with some bling in hand: an inscribed gold medal on a blue and white ribbon.

The medal is the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, the highest honor for a career federal employee. President Bush bestowed the award upon Walters at a ceremony in the White House's East Room with 400 guests.

It was a nice touch for Walters, who had overseen the White House since 1986, under four different presidents.

Do you need to oversee the president's meals and laundry to earn highest distinction? No, but you do have to make a name for yourself.

President Eisenhower established the award by executive order in 1957. He made it exclusive from the start: No more than five awards can be given each year. The president selects recipients based on suggestions from the Office of Personnel Management.

"The importance of the achievements to the government and to the public interest shall be so outstanding that the officer or employee is deserving of greater public recognition than that which can be accorded by the head of the department or agency in which he is employed," Eisenhower's order stated.

From 1985 to 2005, only 23 employees received the president's award, according to OPM. This translates to an average of about one a year. With 1.8 million federal employees, the odds aren't good.

Who beat them? In 2005, Steven Cohen, senior adviser at OPM and architect of the Homeland Security Department's new personnel system got one upon retiring after 42 years in government.

In 1998, David "Doc" Cooke, former director of administration and management at the Defense Department who was known as the "Mayor of the Pentagon," got the award. Cooke died four years later in a automobile accident, after 44 years of government service.

One recipient is still in government: Paul Schneider, the new undersecretary for management at DHS. He won the medal in 2000, when he was in charge of Navy acquisitions to the tune of $30 billion and served as acting assistant secretary for eight months. Before that, Schneider headed the Naval Sea Systems Command after beginning his career in 1965 as an engineer at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Among former recipients, there are some famous names, including Lawrence Eagleburger, the former secretary of State under the first President Bush. Some more controversial names are on the list, too, such as former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The medal itself is just a token; it doesn't come with the tens of thousands of dollars that the more common Distinguished and Meritorious Executive awards bring. But it's an exclusive token.

 
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