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. Nathan

    They get a medal; a free lunch (chicken sandwich) and a bottle of Ripple...

    November 20, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  2. rlr

    Oprah winfrey – now we know why she was doing all that anti-white racist rant stuff – it was her purchase price of a medal of freedom... award means as much as obama's nobel prize...

    November 20, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  3. freedomliker

    You couldn't be bothered to name all 16? The entire article was a love letter to Bill Clinton and Oprah.

    November 20, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  4. Brian Phaneuf

    Many third world dictators hand out medals like candy, he is just trying to fit in.

    November 20, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  5. Jack

    Chao: 30-40 percent of ObamaCare website yet to be built.

    November 20, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  6. paul reynolds

    Did our President take the chance to return to Clinton the Stab in the Back.?

    November 20, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  7. JackBriss

    Bill Clinton was awarded the Monica Luwinski award.
    This is all about money period. Many regular people in America could have received that award. To me this is a disgrace with some of the recipients.

    November 20, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  8. If I had a hammer... I'd whack you in the morning

    Obama is taking a beating from many people who no real understanding of leadership or awareness of others. I still think both he and Kennedy are the best presidents in my lifetime. With this statement I will receive raspberries but given the nature of mankind and the lack of "true knowledge" I'm good with being in the few.

    November 20, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  9. Libdumb

    What a joke especially in light of the accusations Oprah made to the British press.

    November 20, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  10. jzaks

    Should have brought the soldiers home and awarded them. They are actually doing something for this country.

    November 20, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  11. Joshua McFlabbergast

    Calling Oprah a journalist is a bit of a stretch. Broadcast personality and entertainer, yeah, but journalist? Nah.

    November 20, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  12. The Great Princess Tribe Reuben leader 10 tribes

    Very nice yes these men and women leaders are before one of the highest thrones in the kingdom of heaven. If you only knew truly what their leadership has saved like me you would have tears. I can't stop crying, because you truly don't what you saved in the United States and for this reason a crown he said for us. We are the choosen ones and your leadership here was outstanding and we thank you very, very much. You will see him soon, he said to me and honored for leadership of everlasting life. Again, thank you for leadership. Very nice, very nice thank you again.

    November 20, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  13. korkea aika

    Excellent choices, Mr President. No one can even imagine this award going to G W Bush, or his henchmen, Cheney, Rummy or the chief of staff who spared GW any effort to read the intelligence on the upcoming September 11th attacks, Ms Rice

    November 20, 2013 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  14. Don

    Oprah? After what she said about America! She should give the medal back. She's a racist.

    November 20, 2013 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  15. getoverurself

    Hey Everybody, look at me, I'm special. Seriously, these people have no humility. They are so full of themselves, its repulsive. Kennedy was truly one of the last great presidents. And now Hillary wants to run for the presidency. Seriously, haven't the Clintons had enough time in the spotlight? Come on man, when are we going to see some real change in this country.

    November 20, 2013 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  16. John

    "Hey baby, what's your name – you new intern? Want to see my Presidential Medal of Freedom" ?

    November 20, 2013 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  17. Anonymous

    Headline should be "Nation honors its finest liars and race mongers".

    November 20, 2013 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  18. nonyabidnes2

    " Nation honors its finest". Have we arrived at the point of honoring those, who's by our standards, need not to be honored? We have soldiers dying in a foreign country that deserve this praise. The signal, this article sends,grates against my very nerve. This article suggests that if your involved in such controversy you get to be called the nations finest. .Would the last ttrue American please bring the flag out of Washington D.C.

    November 20, 2013 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  19. NorCalMojo

    At least Nero can still play the fiddle.

    November 20, 2013 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  20. Obvious

    Oprah Winfrey will be on the Supreme Court by the time Obama leaves office.

    November 20, 2013 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  21. Tony

    I didn't realize that a disbarred lawyer like Bill Clinton would be eligible for such a high honor. Would a box of cogars been more appropriate a gift?

    November 20, 2013 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  22. gary

    Thank you Mr President for your courage and great leadership. God bless you

    November 20, 2013 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  23. Marci

    Congratulations to all of the recipients.

    November 20, 2013 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  24. Thirsty Bob

    What? No one from NASCAR received a medal? What a disgrace. Damn communists!

    November 20, 2013 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  25. doorknob

    Good Lord people, you are depressing.. I am sure that if you ran the world you would do just a simply marvelous job...There are all kinds of problems out there... Are you part of the solution or part of the problem? Take a good look at yourself and see if you can see all points of contention, and try to appease everyone...It is not that easy.. Democracy is not set up like that and for that we should be happy about that.......

    November 20, 2013 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
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