President Obama paid tribute Wednesday to Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, and both of them honored a presidential icon: John F. Kennedy.
Obama awarded Clinton and 15 other Americans the Presidential Medal of Freedom, created 50 years ago by Kennedy; other recipients included television legend Oprah Winfrey, country music artist Loretta Lynn, women’s rights leader Gloria Steinem, baseball great Ernie Banks, and pioneering astronaut Sally Ride.
“These are men and women who in their extraordinary lives remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit,” Obama said during a ceremony at the White House.
Obama and Clinton are traveling later to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath near the eternal flame that marks Kennedy’s grave. Friday is the 50th anniversary of the assassination that transformed American politics and culture.
The delegation will include members of the Kennedy family, as well as a former official who may soon seek the presidency herself: former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Obama also pays tribute to JFK at a dinner tonight for current and past Medal of Freedom recipients.
During the medal ceremony in the East Room, Obama praised Clinton for a journey that took him from a small town in Arkansas to the White House and cited his predecessor’s post-presidential humanitarian work, saying “he doesn’t stop,”
The current president also thanked Clinton for his “advice and counsel … on and off the golf course.”
Other Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients hailed from the worlds of politics, entertainment, science, civil rights, and the arts.
Winfrey, whose talk show transformed television interviews, reached “the pinnacle of the entertainment universe,” Obama said of his fellow Chicagoan and long-time political supporter.
“Her message was always, ‘you can,'” Obama said.
In addition to Clinton, Obama honored other political leaders. He hailed the efforts of former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., to reduce global stockpiles of nuclear weapons, describing it as the “extinction of Cold War arsenals.”
The late Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, lost an arm and earned a Medal of Honor in World War II, and went on to become the second longest-serving senator in United States history.
Civil and human rights played a large role in the Medal of Freedom ceremony.
Steinem, who began professional life as a journalist, “awakened a vast and often skeptical” nation to issues like domestic abuse and pay discrimination, Obama said.
The Rev. C.T. Vivian was “among the first to be in on the action” during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, from the Freedom Rides to Selma, Obama said.
Another civil rights pioneer, the late Bayard Rustin, organized the 1963 March on Washington. Obama pointed out that Rustin fought for civil rights on another front, as an openly gay man.
Judge Patricia Wald was the first woman to sit on the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
Lynn, often called the queen of country music, “gave voice to a generation” through such songs as Coal Miner’s Daughter, the title of a biographical film about her life.
Jazz legend Arturo Sandoval learned to play the trumpet in communist Cuba, where listening to music on the Voice of America could get you tossed in jail, Obama said.
Obama noted that baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Banks — “Mr. Cub” from Chicago — came up through the old Negro League and became famous for his infectious enthusiasm as well as his power hitting.
Former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith — a hoops innovator — helped integrate a restaurant in Chapel Hill and recruited the school’s first African-American athlete during the 1960s, the president said.
Science was also honored at the Medal of Freedom of ceremony.
Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. “basically invented the study of human decision making,” Obama said.
Environmental scientist Mario Molina, another Nobel Prize winner, specified the dangers of carbon emissions, the president said.
Another honoree had a direct connection to John Kennedy: Ben Bradlee was a neighbor of JFK’s and covered his presidency for Newsweek magazine. Bradlee later was editor of The Washington Post, making it a national political force through coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.