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. Susie

    Why would you give a Medal of Honor to someone who just blurted out one of the most racist statements I have ever heard?

    November 20, 2013 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  2. mark

    How pathetic , if you could only see how brown that nose is.

    November 20, 2013 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  3. Fed Up

    Bill Clinton has had "relations" with Monica Lewinsky, Jennifer Flowers and Hillary. I'd say he deserves a Purple Heart more than the Medal of Freedom.

    November 20, 2013 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  4. Thinktank2014

    Oooh boy! Is there anything left that the right cannot criticize.

    November 20, 2013 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |

    Way to celebrate the wrong spirit of JFK by bizzaro Obama thinking "Ask not what you can do for your country, but what the government can hand out to you" .

    November 20, 2013 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  6. TSB8C

    And even after Bill also called Obama a liar and started distancing Hillary from the fiascoes that are Benghazi, Fast and Furious, ObamaCare (what Hillary tried to do in Bill's first term), NSA, etc.

    November 20, 2013 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  7. Yakobi

    Geez, Slick Willie and Orpah? The shenanigans of this administration are piling up...

    November 20, 2013 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  8. jim

    ....silly little boy's club......

    November 20, 2013 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  9. OBG

    We finally have transparency in the Obama administration!

    It's obvious that Obama and Clinton are making a quid pro quo deal.

    November 20, 2013 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  10. Knucklehead

    Another bs 'bout one to the web designers for Obamacare? Or the people who rolled out Cash for Clunkers? Oprah? Really? I am so freaking proud....

    November 20, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  11. snowyowl

    Well-deserved, all of them. Republicans and tea baggers will howl about Clinton, which only proves that he really, really deserves the honor.

    November 20, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  12. Jack


    November 20, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  13. Knucklehead

    Ellen is a shoo-in for next year.

    November 20, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  14. John

    Oprah award – payback for "The Butler" propaganda?

    November 20, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  15. Puh-leeze

    So much for reaching across party lines and being a bi-partisan much for "reaching across the isle" and pulling both parties together.

    He's done more to divide this country along party lines than ANY other president.

    November 20, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  16. Tony

    Liberals get phony awards they do not deserve, every day Americans get the shaft with Obamacare. Welcome to Lefty Bubble World. And the beat goes on.

    November 20, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |

    JFK "Ask not what your your country can do for you......" OBAMA "ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can handout to you"

    November 20, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  18. redruffansore

    What a bongtard. Third world Potentate handing out baubles to his useful idiots.

    November 20, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  19. I have opinions

    So, Clinton receives the nation's highest honor... Shouldn't that honor go to Monica, if this is the standard?

    November 20, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  20. 2bsquare

    This is a joke. We should be giving these awards to people like Kelly Johnson (father of the SR71) or whomever conceived the Predator Drone. Yes it has become and offensive weapon, but for many guys pinned down it was nice to have overhead. What about the designer of the cell phone or the Fiber Optic.

    We spend millions touting celebrities, yet nothing on the folks that actually use their brains and design things. What do you get for a patent, $2,000.

    November 20, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  21. jpm224

    "vote for obama" they said...."it'll be great", they said...

    November 20, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  22. cleat

    more like the order of Lenin...

    November 20, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  23. unknown11

    Any news that does not include notes about Obama being a liar is good news for the White House.

    November 20, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  24. TiredofSilly1

    Oprah?!?!? REALLY?!?!?! For being a talk show host and funding a school that is nowhere near the United States???? Enough to make a sensible person puke.

    November 20, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  25. blakenaustin

    What a joke! Clinton, Inouye, Oprah, Steinem. Far left losers one and all. Each has done a huge disservice to our nation.

    November 20, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
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