President Barack Obama awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor Wednesday to 16 Americans, including former President Bill Clinton and iconic talk show host Oprah Winfrey, in a star-studded and often poignant celebration at the White House.
“These are the men and women who in their extraordinary lives remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit, the values that define us as Americans, the potential that lives inside of all of us,” Obama said in a 45-minute ceremony.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is given to those who have “made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” according to the White House.
Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, Watergate-era Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and country music legend Loretta Lynn were among the leaders of sports, politics, science and the arts to receive the medal.
Most of the loudest applause was reserved for Clinton, who since leaving the White House has raised money to help in the aftermath of natural disasters and created a foundation to improve health, economies and the environment across the globe.
“Lifting up families like his own became the story of Bill Clinton’s life,” Obama said. “He wanted to make sure he made life better and easier for so many people across the country.”
In recent years, Obama and Clinton have become allies, but the relationship between the 42nd and 44th presidents has been fraught with complications, particularly in 2008 when Obama and Clinton’s wife competed for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. Just last week, Clinton urged Obama to allow Americans to keep their insurance as part of the new troubled health care law. The two hugged briefly.
“I’m grateful, Bill, as well for the advice and counsel that you’ve offered me on and off the golf course,” Obama said. “And most importantly, for your lifesaving work around the world, which represents what’s the very best in America. So thank you so much, President Clinton.”
Obama mentioned Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state, only once, thanking Clinton for having patience “during the endless travels of my secretary of state.” Hillary Clinton, a possible presidential hopeful in 2016, and daughter, Chelsea, were seated at the front of the crowded room, as were first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, members of Congress and movie director Steven Spielberg.
In holding the event Wednesday, Obama honored the legacy of President John F. Kennedy, who established the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago this week in Dallas, two weeks before he could honor the inaugural class of 31 recipients. Instead, President Lyndon Johnson presided over the ceremony at the White House the same day Kennedy’s family moved out.
“I hope we carry away from this a reminder of what JFK understood to be the essence of the American spirit,” Obama said. “Some of us may be less talented, but we all have the opportunity to serve and to open people’s hearts and minds in our smaller orbits.”
Others honored Wednesday: former Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks, known as “Mr. Cub;” the late Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii; Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton University scholar of psychology; former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar; chemist and environmental scientist Mario Molina; the late civil rights leader Bayard Rustin; jazz trumpeter, pianist and composer Arturo Sandoval; former University of North Carolina basketball head coach Dean Smith; writer and activist Gloria Steinem; civil rights leader Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian; and Patricia Wald, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Inouye’s wife stood in for him while Ride and Rustin, the other two posthumously honored, in part for helping break down gay barriers, were represented by their partners, Smith, who is suffering from a neurological disorder, was not able to attend.
Besides Clinton, Winfrey drew the most interest.
Winfrey rose from a childhood of poverty to become the creator of the highest-rated talk show in television history. She launched The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986 when few women – and even fewer black women – had a national platform and used her influence to support underserved communities around the world.
“Even with 40 Emmys, the distinction of being the first black female billionaire, Oprah’s greatest strength has always been her ability to help us discover the best in ourselves,” Obama said. “Michelle and I count ourselves among her many devoted fans and friends. As one of those fans wrote, ‘I didn’t know I had a light in me until Oprah told me it was there.’ What a great gift.”
Obama joked that he could relate to Winfrey, whose funny-sounding first name prompted her boss to suggest she change her name to Susie.
“I have to pause here to say I got the same advice,” he said. “They didn’t say I should be named ‘Susie,’ but they suggested I should change my name. People can relate to Susie, that’s what they said. It turned out, surprisingly, that people could relate to Oprah just fine.”
Later, the Obamas and the Clintons traveled to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath near the eternal flame that marks Kennedy’s grave. As they walked up to the site, Obama and Clinton each held one hand of Kennedy’s sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy, as she climbed the steps.
In the evening, Obama was to deliver a speech on Kennedy’s legacy of service at a dinner attended by many members of the Kennedy family, including Robert Kennedy’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and John F. Kennedy’s only surviving sibling, Jean Kennedy Smith.
In the last five decades, more than 500 people have been awarded the Medal of Freedom, including some in attendance Wednesday night: baseball great Hank Aaron, singer Aretha Franklin, economist Alan Greenspan, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.