WASHINGTON -- Fifty years after the Presidential Medal of Freedom was established, President Obama presented the nation’s highest civilian award to 16 Americans from fields as diverse as science, politics and sports.
The award, created by President Kennedy to replace the Medal of Freedom established by President Truman in 1945, kicked off a day of memorials to Kennedy, slain by a sniper’s bullet in Dallas 50 years ago on Friday. From the medal ceremony, Obama and former President Clinton, a recipient, and their wives headed to Arlington National Cemetery for a JFK ceremony at the eternal flame that marks the gravesite.
“Today, we salute fierce competitors who became true champions,” Obama said at the East Room ceremony.
The group of winners, a remarkable collection of achievement, was, in a way, also a commemoration of Obama’s Chicago ties as well as his debt to the African American civil rights movement.
Two of the winners were noted civil rights leaders, including the late Bayard Rustin who won fame as an organizer for events such as the 1963 march on Washington. He was also openly gay and paid a price in abuse from opponents and from some other black leaders who were allies on racial issues. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian is the living civil rights leader, minister and author who was also honored.
Three people from the ever-expanding world of journalism were winners. Oprah Winfrey, the Chicago journalist who rose to stardom as an actress, activist and a talk show host, was honored. Her early support of Obama – in 2006 before the then-relatively unknown U.S. Sen. Obama formally declared his presidential campaign -- and her active campaigning helped propel him to early primary victories.
Winfrey straddles the worlds of journalism and civil rights, as does Gloria Steinem, another winner. The feminist writer and magazine founder was a crucial voice in establishing the modern feminist revolution which challenged male dominance in the business and political worlds and helped raise wages and dignity for women, who are still paid less than their male counterparts and frequently are targets of domestic abuse.
Patricia Wald, a trail-blazing federal judge who later served on the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, was also among the winners.
The late Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was among the honorees. She didn't just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, “she blasted right through it,” the president said, noting how Ride changed a woman’s role.
“Young girls need to see role models, she said. You can't be what you can't see,” Obama said. “Today our daughters, including Malia and Sasha, can set their sights a little bit higher because Sally Ride showed them the way.”
The third journalist was the former executive editor of the Washington Post, Benjamin Bradlee, 92. Under Bradlee, the Post brought down the Nixon presidency by exposing its criminal feet of clay. The process re-created the universe of investigative journalism, turning out tens of thousands of journalism school graduates who saw stars in their eyes as they pored through arcane municipal documents and cultivated the next secret source.
The world of sports contributed two figures who helped define their trade. Ernie Banks, now 82, played for 19 years with the Chicago Cubs, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility. Known as “Mr. Cub,” his enthusiasm was so contagious that fans often overlooked his team’s lackluster performance. His cry, “Let’s play two!” was a level of joy and optimism that left fans in awe and managers bathed in their own envy.
Also honored was Dean Smith, head coach of the University of North Carolina basketball team from 1961 to 1997. Smith helped establish modern college basketball as something more than a bunch of frat boys on the road. He also helped develop Michael Jordan, formerly of the Chicago Bulls, and arguably the best player in history. Not just an All-American, Jordan probably could be chosen for starting spot on an All-Universe team.
Along with Clinton, Obama honored former Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, whose contributions to public policy, especially to foreign affairs, have been cited by many.
The White House described the winners as “individuals 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.”
Other winners include: Daniel K. Inouye, a Democratic senator from Hawaii who received also the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II. He died in December.
The living recipients include: Daniel Kahneman, an pioneering scholar of psychology and winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, and Mario Molina, a chemist and environmental scientist. From the music world, the winners were Loretta Lynn, a country music star, and Arturo Sandoval, a jazz trumpeter.