Barbara Mikulski among luminaries honored at White House

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President Barack Obama awarded the nation's highest civilian honor to 17 Americans at the White House on Tuesday, paying tribute to one of the nation's foremost composers, two sports figures and Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg and singer-songwriter Barbra Streisand were among the best-known recipients of the Medal of Freedom, along with baseball greats Yogi Berra, who died in September, and Willie Mays.


The award was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 to honor individuals who have made contributions to the national interest, world peace or cultural endeavors. Obama has awarded the medal to about a dozen people each year of his presidency.

"We are just reminded, when we see these individuals here on the stage, what an incredible tapestry this country is," Obama said in the East Room. "They represent what's best in us."

Mikulski, the dean of Maryland's congressional delegation and the longest-serving woman in Congress, won the award for her work to advance health research and women's issues, and funding and making higher education more affordable.

Mikulski, first elected to the Senate in 1986, announced in March that she would not seek a sixth term — setting off one of the nation's most competitive Democratic primary races.

Obama related the often-told story of how the Highlandtown native, a daughter of Baltimore grocers, rose to political prominence in the 1960s by successfully blocking efforts to extend Interstate 70 through Fells Point.

"Let's just say you don't want to get on the wrong side of Barbara Mikulski," Obama said. "She stopped that highway and jump-started one of the finest public service careers we've ever seen."

Mikulski, 79, is one of her party's most ardent advocates of women's issues. She successfully pushed through legislation that extended the statute of limitations for suing an employer over wage discrimination, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which became the first major bill Obama signed into law.

The top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mikulski also inserted language into the Affordable Care Act that ensured certain preventive care for women would be covered for free.

"Senator Barb is inspirational," said Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, who attended the ceremony. "Her tenacity and dedication to improving the lives of every American is worthy of this great honor."

Others receiving the award Tuesday included composer Stephen Sondheim, violinist Itzhak Perlman, musicians Gloria and Emilio Estefan, singer James Taylor and NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson.

Two other elected leaders were recognized: longtime Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, who served as the vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, and the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York, the first African-American woman elected to Congress.

Obama offered up some humor for most of the recipients, joking that everyone counted James Taylor as a friend because he instructed people to "just call out my name." He said that Streisand had received so many accolades that he couldn't believe she hadn't already received a Medal of Freedom.

And he paid homage to Berra's celebrated malapropisms.

"What can be said about Lawrence "Yogi" Berra that he couldn't say better himself?" Obama asked. "One thing we know for sure: 'If you can't imitate him, don't copy him.'"