President Barack Obama took a point of personal – and professional – privilege Tuesday, bestowing the nation’s highest civilian honor on a group of people whom he said included some of his own heroes.
From the famous – singer-songwriter Bob Dylan – to the not so well-known – Bill Foege, an epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox – Obama paid tribute to those he said have “changed our lives for the better.”
“Today we present this amazing group with one more accolade for a life well lived,” he said as he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the recipients.
“I have to say, just looking around the room, this is a packed house,” Obama said in the East Room of the White House, calling it a “testament to how cool this group is. Everybody wanted to check ’em out.”
And they did, clapping and setting camera shutters ablaze for Dylan and writer Toni Morrison. And there were cheers when Dolores Huerta, an activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with the late Cesar Chavez, was recognized. “She was very polite when I told her I had stolen her slogan, ’Si se puede’” Obama joked of the woman whom he said has “fought to give more people a seat at the table.”
Administration officials filled the room as well – with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton beaming from the front row as Obama touted the “courage and toughness” of one of her predecessors, Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as America’s top diplomat. And Clinton smiled and nodded as Obama paid a posthumous tribute to Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low, noting that nearly 60 million Girl Scouts had gained “leadership skills and self-confidence” through the group, including “my own secretary of state.”
Obama said that many of the recipients had a personal effect on him, noting that he remembered reading Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” and “not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think.”
He said he read about Huerta when he was starting out as a community organizer and thinks about the contribution of University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt when his daughters are “diving after loose balls and feeling confident and strong.”
“What sets these men and women apart is the incredible impact they have had on so many people, not in short, blinding bursts,” he said, “But steadily over the course of a lifetime.”
He also recognized John Doar, a Department of Justice attorney who brought notable civil rights cases, including obtaining convictions for the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. “I think it’s fair to say that I might not be here had it not been for his work,” Obama said.
Of Dylan, he noted, “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music. All these years later, he’s still chasing that sound, still searching for a little bit of truth, and I have to say that I am a really big fan.” Dylan sat impassively, behind sunglasses.
Those receiving the medal also included astronaut and former Sen. John Glenn, whom Obama noted “defied the odds once again” by taking a second trip into space at age 77.
Gordon Hirabayashi, who openly defied the forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, was posthumously recognized, along with Low and Jan Karski, who carried among the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to the world.
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was recognized for his “clear and graceful manner to the defense of individual rights and the rule of law,” in the courtroom as well as his behavior outside.
“Ever humble,” Obama said of Stevens, “He would happily comply when unsuspecting tourists asked him to take their picture in front of the court.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres, whom Obama said “has done more for the cause of peace in the Middle East than just about anybody alive,” will receive his award at a White House dinner in June. “I’m looking forward to welcoming him,” Obama said. “And if it’s all right with you, I will save my best lines about him for that occasion.”