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. Guest

    Clinton and Obama-2 liars in a suit.

    November 20, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  2. Dennis A

    I had to turn the channel watching Obama and Clinton , it made me want to vomit. Where's Wolf Blitzer reporting Obama tanking in the polls? He sure made America know when Bush hit a his lows in aproval. CNN is a joke

    November 20, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  3. Sean

    Clinton left stains on a dress, Obama is leaving a stain on the nation.

    November 20, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  4. Jdub

    Negative negative negative. That's all anyone focuses on anymore.

    I do appreciate CNN allowing a comment section though. It has sparked some pretty intense discussions.
    I wish Fox would allow comments again. Might pull some of the negativity away from here. Since their fan club isn't allowed to voice their thoughts/opinions on most matters anymore, they come running over here. Ironic.

    November 20, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  5. Bob C.

    An adulterer, a racist (Oprah) and a true american hero. Ride must be turning over in her grave.

    November 20, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  6. cedar rapids

    'Dan L – Seems to me that the "medal of freedom" has become a political bribe this year. The Clintons are starting to distance themselves from Obama in preparation for Hillary's 2016 run'

    Actually it seems to be traditional for the president to award it to the president before his predecessor. The person after Obama will award one to Bush Jnr and so on.

    'Veritas –'d think he'd give at least one to someone who isn't one of his liberal Democratic supporters, just to maintain the illusion that the award still means something.Is there anything this man can't cheapen into a meaningless political payoff?'

    Is there anything you cant cheapen in an attempt to make a stupid claim? How about you check out the rest of the recipients, including the republican honored.

    November 20, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  7. George Dixon

    JFK: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country"
    Obama: "ObamaCare"
    JFK: "Go to the Moon in a decade" from now

    The indisputable trajectory of the Democrat Party, into the 2nd decade of the 21st century, explains why America is hurting under democrat administrations and legislation.

    November 20, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  8. Fair is Fair


    Why is everyone's view on this so negative?
    A. Bill Clinton was not impeached, and has been doing a lot of charitable work since leaving the presidency
    B. Obama is not trying to further his political career, he doesn't have one. After being the president there isn't really anywhere else to go
    A. Bill Clinton WAS impeached. He was found not guilty.
    B. Tell that to President Taft, who went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

    November 20, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  9. abmri60

    I was born and raised in the Netherlands in the late fifties, and I remember my family being glued to the TV wiping away tears and in disbelieve that JFK was dead, he was well loved all over the world...

    November 20, 2013 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  10. Paul

    "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."

    I'm not going to give you any "raspberries"...all I'm going to say is that it is YOU who clearly have no real understanding of leadership if you honestly think Obama is one the best Presidents of your lifetime. History is going to judge him quite a bit more harshly (certainly after the sycophantic Obamabots have gone away); history, unlike the fawning media and shallow public, is objective.

    November 20, 2013 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  11. Adversity

    It honors the change in the parties beliefs from JFK's "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" to Obama's "How can the country help you?" philosophy.

    November 20, 2013 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  12. bbrooker88

    Wow, are some of you people so dumb that you didn't realize these medals are given every year, by EVERY president??? Apparently so by some of the comments I see, as if this has anything at all to do with Obama other than him handing them out.

    November 20, 2013 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  13. Jerry

    Academy Awards night for politician's

    November 20, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm

    Tomás, NO, NO!!! Academy Awards night for the Liar-in-Chief (Mr. Obama) and Democrats and Mr. Obama's butt kissers.

    Just one simple example: I used to have the utmost respect for Oprah. After her diatribe on foreign television; NO LONGER!!!

    And, and you just imagine, Moochelle Obama hates Oprah's guts. Mr. Obamas legacy: DEFLECT, DEFLECT!

    Stay tuned...

    November 20, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  14. Patrick in Wisconsin

    Wow, the teabags are out in full force today. And you accuse us of sitting on our bums and doing nothing? From the looks of it, us liberals are the ones at work today while the teabags are at home having sissy fits.

    November 20, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  15. daeh ttub

    Holy Cow, it's Troll Central here with so much hatred and rubbish. So much for a leisurely lunch break read. I'm guessing by the time stamps that these trolls are unemployed basement dwellers or screwing around on their company's dime. That said, I cannot believe they didn't mention that Senator Inouye was a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Pretty shabby reporting here. Regardless, congratulations to all the recipients and may the rest of us strive to make even a fraction of your contributions to society.

    November 20, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  16. Bill Gunter

    Bill Clinton, most lewd acts performed while in office.

    November 20, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  17. Bill Gunter

    Oprah is a queen.

    November 20, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  18. shorething

    And yet Obama ignores Lincoln, after making such a big deal about using his bible to be sworn in as President. Good move Obama, way to continue to show how out of touch and you are with this country

    November 20, 2013 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  19. TheDude

    Sounds like its a medal for who can suck d the best.

    November 20, 2013 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  20. jerry2286

    yet he couldn't be bothered with Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address.

    November 20, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  21. Blue Alliance

    Totally agree with the person who sighted President Obama and President Kennedy as two of the best Presidents we have ever had!! Hatred is a real cancer and is eroding the very fabric of our society....Kennedy was killed because of it and Obama has been persecuted since day one of his Presidency. What is it about those democratic Presidents.....??

    November 20, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  22. Ken

    Well the Buh'rack..he is lying once again...and, the medal is foil covered pot metal, with a bit of string...made by Mootch Obo....

    November 20, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  23. much thunder..little rain

    look likes a big money medal ..who raised th emost money for obama election

    November 20, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  24. Agnostickids

    Uh oh. The conservatives are trembling in fear over the fact that the ACA issues are being resolved and people are moving on – in the real world – ignoring their cries of "foul."

    Yes, President Obama honor his "friends" and other American heroes. But so did Bush Jr. Every President honors people that represent their ideas.

    Oh, and yes, the ACA will be fixed and we will be moving forward, whether you like it or not.

    November 20, 2013 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  25. Bill

    If I was President, I would ask Alan Greenspan to give his Medal of Freedom back!

    November 20, 2013 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
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