President Barack Obama on Wednesday celebrated American legends of politics, sports, letters, science and the arts including Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey in awarding his country’s highest civilian honor.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony was lent added poignancy as the award was first minted by John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago this week.
Obama said that the 16 honorees represented “what JFK understood to be the essence of the American spirit.”
Obama, who has built his own political creed on uplifting the middle class, said that Clinton, a fellow Democrat, proved that “you could grow the economy, lift people out of poverty,” shrink deficits and still invest in families, schools and science and technology.
“In other words, we can go further when we look out for each other.
“And as we’ve all seen, as president he was just getting started. He doesn’t stop,” he said, lauding Clinton’s post-presidency projects in the developing world and elsewhere with his foundation.
“I’m grateful, Bill, as well, for the advice and counsel that you’ve offered me, on and off the golf course, and most importantly, for your life-saving work around the world, which represents what’s the very best in America.”
Clinton and Obama initially had a cool relationship after the president ousted Hillary Clinton in a bitter 2008 Democratic primary contest.
But after Obama named her as his secretary of state, and called on the former president to aid his re-election campaign, the two men developed much closer personal ties.
Obama said Winfrey — a billionaire talk show host, friend and political supporter — had built a massive following on the basis of her message “you can.”
“You can do and you can be and you can grow and it can be better. She was living proof, rising from a childhood of poverty and abuse to the pinnacle of the entertainment universe,” he said.
The president also posthumously honored America’s first female astronaut in orbit Sally Ride, who died last year.
“As the first American woman in space, Sally didn’t just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, she blasted through it,” Obama said.”
“And when she came back to Earth, she devoted her life to helping girls excel in fields like math, science and engineering.”
Obama also honored pioneering journalists Gloria Steinem and Watergate-era Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.
“As a writer, a speaker, an activist, (Steinem) awakened a vast and often skeptical public to problems like domestic violence, a lack of affordable child care, unfair hiring practices,” Obama said.
The president said Bradlee’s Post, which brought down president Richard Nixon, was a reminder “that our freedom as a nation rests on our freedom of the press.”
Also honored on Wednesday were Chicago Cubs baseball legend Ernie Banks, late former Hawaii senator Daniel Inouye, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, former Republican senator and nuclear non-proliferation campaigner Richard Lugar, country music star Loretta Lynn, environmentalist Mario Molina, the late civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, college basketball coach Dean Smith, civil rights activist Cordy Tindell Vivian and Judge Patricia Wald.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is presented to people for “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.”