November 20th, 2013
11:15 AM ET
9 years ago

Obama honors 16 people with Presidential Medal of Freedom

Updated 11/20/2013 at 12:19 a.m. ET

Washington (CNN) – President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation's highest civilian honor - to 16 people, from former President Bill Clinton and iconic talk show host Oprah Winfrey to the late astronaut Sally Ride, in ceremonies Wednesday.

"This is one of my favorite events every year," said the President. "This year it's just a little more special, because this marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy establishing this award."

Obama noted that members of the Kennedy clan were in attendance: Robert Kennedy's widow, Ethel Kennedy, and JFK grandson and son of U.S. ambassador Caroline Kennedy, Jack Schlossberg.

Obama also took the chance during the ceremony for some self-deprecating humor when referencing one of the honorees. "All of us have moments when we look back and wonder, what the heck was I thinking? I have that quite a bit," Obama said. "Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has made that simple question his life's work."

President Clinton is receiving the award for his public service in the White House and for founding, "the Clinton Foundation to improve global health, strengthen economies, promote health and wellness, and protect the environment," according to the White House.

Seven things you didn't know about two Medal of Freedom winners

Obama said that after Clinton left office, "he was just getting started, he doesn't stop."

The President added that "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."

As for Winfrey, the White House said, "Winfrey is one of the world's most successful broadcast journalists ... best known for creating The Oprah Winfrey Show, " And that she, "has long been active in philanthropic causes and expanding opportunities for young women."

"Her message was always 'you can.'" Obama said. "Michelle and I count ourselves among her many devoted fans and friends."

CNN reached out to both President Clinton and Winfrey for their thoughts on receiving the award, but there was no immediate response.

In a statement,, Obama said the medal "goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours."

During a press briefing last month, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney added that the award is, "presented to 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."

The President will headline a dinner at the American History Museum Wednesday night, that will honor all of this year's recipients and include a jazz performance by Arturo Sandoval – one of this year's honorees.

Other recipients this year include:

-Former Chicago Cubs legend Ernie Banks for being, as the White House puts it, "one of the greatest baseball players of all time. During his 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs, he played in 11 All-Star Games, hit over 500 home runs, and became the first National League player to win Most Valuable Player honors in back-to-back years." In August, the Cubs paid tribute to Banks for receiving the Presidential Medal with a pre-game tribute at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Banks told fans, "You made it possible for me to receive this great honor." The 82-year-old added, "I didn't play in the World Series … but this to me takes the place of all the days I've spent out here that didn't make it."

-Ben Bradlee, former executive editor at the Washington Post, who oversaw coverage of the Watergate break-in.

-Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut to travel to space. Ride died last year.

-Former Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who died last year, honored posthumously for his lifelong public service. He was the first Japanese American to serve in Congress, and represented Hawaii from the day the island state joined the Union.

-Country music star Loretta Lynn, for, "breaking barriers in an industry long dominated by men," according to the White House. She became one of the first successful female country artists in the 1960s.

-Women's rights activist Gloria Steinem, for her leadership "in the women's liberation movement," the White House said, and as co-founder of Ms. Magazine.

Past Medal of Freedom award winners include music legends Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald; civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks; and former presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.

"This year's honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world," Obama said, adding, "It will be my honor to present them with a token of our nation's gratitude."

Carney noted that, "This year marks the 50th anniversary of the executive order signed by President John F. Kennedy establishing the Presidential Medal of Freedom. "Since that time, more than 500 exceptional individuals from all corners of society have been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom," Carney said.

The President is expected to mention JFK's legacy during his remarks Wednesday evening, coinciding with the 50th anniversary Friday of Kennedy's assassination in Dallas.

A source close to the Kennedy family told CNN that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will formally represent the Kennedy family and its three generations when President Obama and former President Clinton lay a wreath at JFK's grave Wednesday.

The source said it is possible JFK's sister, former Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith; and JFKs grandson Jack Schlossberg, the son of Caroline Kennedy, will also attend.

Another source familiar with the planning it was President Obama's idea to honor President Clinton with the Medal of Freedom and to invite the Clintons to the wreath laying at JFK's gave site at Arlington National Cemetery.

Similarly to his low-key commemoration of the Gettysburg Address, Obama plans a quiet tribute to Kennedy set for Friday.

Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (326 Responses)
  1. ladies first

    It's indeed a privledge for the President to give out these Honors to such deserving individuals that make life a rewarding place to be.

    November 19, 2013 08:17 pm at 8:17 pm |
  2. HenryMiller

    It's ironic that a man who doesn't believe in individual freedom is passing out freedom medals.

    November 19, 2013 08:31 pm at 8:31 pm |
  3. ED1

    Looks like the Democrats win again like there was any doubt.

    November 19, 2013 11:25 pm at 11:25 pm |
  4. Chris

    Completely FORGOT the greatest coach in basketball history, DEAN SMITH. He's being recognized as well.

    November 19, 2013 11:58 pm at 11:58 pm |
  5. name. willard

    More obama fraud give that barack obama entrine existnce is based on a fraud how it surpise that his re-election based on yet another we how know that the unemployement
    Numbers that came out in the september before the election lie as well and the lie were based on order from above more......

    November 20, 2013 04:34 am at 4:34 am |
  6. Mark

    It would be an insult to get any kind of award from this clown. I wouldn't walk across the street to see him for a million dollars.

    November 20, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  7. gary

    Glad he could make it. What a shame that he didn't have the time yesterday to fly Marine One 20 minutes away to honor the man, the speech and the cause that made his presidency possible. Way too much trouble. Such an educated man, yet he cannot spell l e a d e r s h I p............

    November 20, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  8. JT

    In other words to Oprah "Thanks for getting me elected the first time", to President Clinton "Thanks for getting me re-elected".

    November 20, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  9. move to Canada

    Completely useless awards when there are so many more important things the Joke of President should be concentrating on

    November 20, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  10. Rob

    How about giving RECOGNITION to GENERAL HELMS USAF!!! Instead you want to force her retirement and take her last promotion away.... What a coward you are Obama!!! Shes done more for our country then you'll ever do! You have given the people and the Nation a tarnished reputation.

    November 20, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  11. Josh

    He SHOULD be honoring the survivors of the Benghazi attack for bravery in the face of non-response by government forces for reasons unknown to anyone and in which the current standing President never has the correct information to do anything because he's constantly in the dark about everything.

    November 20, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  12. newshound

    Oprah is such a patriot.

    November 20, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  13. kaneda

    Oprah and Bill Clinton. The two people campaigned for his presidential election.

    November 20, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  14. Struve

    Clinton receiving a medal? does anyone see him as that great a person?

    November 20, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  15. Ace

    Lots of Obama envy here today.

    November 20, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  16. elbobo

    How come Edward Snowden didn't get one?

    November 20, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  17. Richard

    Unbelievable. Legislation put in during Clinton's tenure, to deregulate mortgages lead directly to the economic disaster we saw in 2008 and he's getting an award?

    November 20, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  18. Anonymous

    But he just didn't have time to go 43 miles to Gettyburg to honor the dead and a great event in our history. Not glamorous enough for him I guess.

    November 20, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  19. idb

    So, basically the medal went to people who should absolutely not be rewarded.

    November 20, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  20. Erik

    Why in God's name did they leave out the GREAT Coach Dean Smith?!?!

    He changed the game of basketball in so many ways. GO HEELS!

    November 20, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  21. norwegian woody

    Clinton's getting the medal for teaching Obama the art of recieving blowjobs in the oval office

    November 20, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  22. Zach

    Whatever gets the public's attention off current events...

    November 20, 2013 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  23. Il

    Bill Cl., Rwanda will never forget you…And thanks also for Glass-Stigall Act..

    November 20, 2013 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  24. rick

    Nice that Obama gave President Clinton the medal. Would have been awkward having President Hillary Clinton giving the medal to President Bill Clinton.

    November 20, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  25. Libertarian

    What should be a prestigious award is sullied by dubious past & present winners. Sinatra (mob ties), Oprah (fluff talk show host), Bill Clinton (Lewinsky), Lyndon Johnson (Viet Nam), etc. At least no one has honored Nixon with the award...yet.

    November 20, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
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