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. Anonymous

    Liberals giving other liberals awards for ridiculous reasons.

    How about one for the TEA Party and Ted Cruz for being absolutely dead on correct about Obamacare and all the lies the Democrats have been telling the country? Now THAT is service to this country and its people!

    November 20, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  2. Ed t duck

    Surprised Clinton got it after he threw BO under the bus last week.

    November 20, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  3. Gordon

    Well it looks like all of the money Oprah spent to get him elected and re-elected has paid off in a shiny medal.

    November 20, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  4. truzak

    I've searched everywhere on the CNN website and can find no story about Obama's approval rating plummeting to 37% and approval of Obama's health insurance scam falling to 31%.

    Hmm . . . was it not Wolf Blitzer who on his cable show breathlessly – for three hours – informed Americans that Bush's approval had fallen to 36%? Why not the fanfare now? Inquiring minds would like to know.

    Maybe the magic number is 36% before it gets mentioned. Well, be patient. Another few million cancellation notices and we'll probably be talking 35%.

    November 20, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  5. al

    what a waste of time. bush never wasted his time like this.
    he was just wasted.

    November 20, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  6. Przemek

    Hahahha what a joke!!! Medal to Winfrey and Clinton? hahahahha....tasteless joke! Sick!

    November 20, 2013 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  7. PassingThrough

    Gary, did you miss his written tribute to the Gettysburg Address? Or have a copy of his schedule to make sure nothing else was happening? Or know for sure that there wasn't a more important reason for him not to be there?

    November 20, 2013 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  8. Sigh

    "Medal of Freedom" has got to be the cheesiest name for an award.

    November 20, 2013 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  9. al

    "How about giving RECOGNITION to GENERAL HELMS USAF!!"
    because it's a CIVILIAN medal.

    November 20, 2013 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  10. Catori Shadi

    Actually, Clinton was recognized for doing what Republicans always claim they want, but rarely do, when elected. Clinton cut spending & reduced the national debt.

    November 20, 2013 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  11. Wow

    President Clinton? Really? Oprah? Really? A real hero doesn't flaunt themselves. Go into any VFW and you'll meet dozens fo men who have been to Hell and back for their country and the medals they have sitting in a desk drawer somewhere they pass off as a "unit citation" or "I only did what everyone else did"... Those are the real heroes...not people who only made themselves buddy buddy with el presidente.

    November 20, 2013 12:01 pm at 12:01 pm |
  12. mayhem4u

    And Baracko paraphrased his close personal friend and medal recipient, Okra Winfrey, as he made the presentations:

    "You get a medal and you get a medal and you get a medal and you get a medal and you get a medal and you get a medal and you get a medal and you get a medal......!"

    November 20, 2013 12:01 pm at 12:01 pm |
  13. Stephanie Nyhus

    How about Medals of Freedom for the Bengazi victims???

    November 20, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  14. Wow

    He cant honor the Office of the Presidency by attending the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg because he is too busy dealing with ACA problems, yet he has time enough to hang medals on Oprah and Bill!!

    November 20, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  15. Patines

    Does Oprah need another award? I don't think so. Does Bill Clinton need another award? I don't think so. Is Obama looking for camera opportunities, absolutely. He might be considering an acting gig after this fiasco.

    November 20, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  16. Dave

    This is a joke...get to work Mr. President!

    November 20, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  17. Disappointed

    How disengenouis can the President get. Oprah Winfrey? Broadcast journalism? Plesae tell me what foreign land, war, or other dangerous place Oprah was reporting from? Chicago? Dan rather must be fuming. All she did was make a large fortune on a gossip show. Congratulations on relegating this award to mediocrity Mr. President!

    November 20, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  18. Government waste rules

    Cool symbols in that Presidential Medal of Freedom! The Pentagon, the Star and the Eye! Way to go folks!

    November 20, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  19. YoMum

    Why have almost all of these people make many millions of dollars from their so called contributions?

    November 20, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  20. JP

    when your approval rating is 37% what do you do?

    Honor another Progressive

    November 20, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  21. Dusty2701

    If the politicians and entertainers couldn't honor themselves, they would all have nervous breakdowns. I'm sure Madonna, Lady Gha Gha and Miley Cirus can't wait to get theirs. Obama would be better off focusing on the economy and creating jobs instead of this nonsense.

    November 20, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  22. B Mead

    Nothing like demeaning an award when honoring the likes of Clinton.

    November 20, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  23. Steve

    The haters will always hate. They will twist and find a way to tarnish something that is good. I'm glad that those kinds of people are losing elections now. They have become the minority while the rest of us want prosperity and will keep voting Democrat.

    November 20, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  24. Fred Flintstone

    Wilma thinks Barney should have been in line for one of those freedom awards for saving a baby Rex from quicksand.

    November 20, 2013 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  25. Michael Hunt, Esq.

    Let me know when Edward Snowden gets his medal.

    November 20, 2013 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
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