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. Laura

    Bill Clinton was a great President – nobody can take that away from him. He wasn't a perfect person, but a great President and has done great work for charity after his Presidency. It bothers some people when he gets recognized for his selfless acts of generosity, and his extreme intellect. It's just sad that some people can't get over the certain things that happened in the past. They just want to remember the bad and ignore the good whenever it serves their personal interests. I think some people are very jealous of Bill Clinton – that would explain all the animosity.

    November 20, 2013 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  2. Anonymous

    war criminals for the banking cartel massas covering for each other.

    November 20, 2013 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  3. Screamin Scott

    Big Whup !! Who cares about popularity awards?

    November 20, 2013 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  4. Tom

    Oprah is America's finest? Wow just give Obama Money and you get a medal. How's Obama care going? WTH?

    November 20, 2013 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  5. DMLowe

    I have lost all respect for Oprah Winfry who turned out to be a racist underneath her facade.

    November 20, 2013 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  6. MIchael

    I can think of a dozen better people then Clinton or Oprah, they already got what they wanted.

    November 20, 2013 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  7. George hotshot

    What about the 19 firefighters who were killed saving a city? Never forget the Granite Mountain Hotshots!

    November 20, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  8. Bleh

    The guy that took a few minutes to help the 73 yr old woman whos car was on its side is more deserving of the medal.

    November 20, 2013 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  9. tony in clt

    How About Chris Kyle – RIP the Devil of Ramadi
    Christopher Scott "Chris" Kyle was a United States Navy SEAL known as the most lethal sniper in American military history with 160 confirmed kills out of 255 claimed kills

    November 20, 2013 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  10. New Rules

    I thought he was giving himself a medal like Napolean did.

    November 20, 2013 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  11. theoriginaljames

    The spectrum of the award between entertainment celebrities and real achievers diminishes it in my mind. It's just a glamorous meaningless entertainment event.

    November 20, 2013 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  12. Joe M.

    Obama to Clinton: "I'll give you the Medal of Freedom if you promise to stop criticizing Obamacare."

    November 20, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  13. Fed up vetran

    That's right Barry, put the medal over a real POTUS. I just hope you don't mess that up too.

    November 20, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  14. Soldier 1

    How ironic. The man that's taken away freedoms and abused power, is giving the medal of freedom.

    November 20, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  15. Meg

    It is so refreshing to read about heroes/heroines being honored instead of political dysfunction. Thank you to all who have given so much to make this country so great. Here’s to more positivity and recognizing what’s going RIGHT in the world - let’s keep this ball rolling!

    November 20, 2013 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  16. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    But he just didn't have time to go 43 miles to Gettyburg
    Actually he had the time and chose NOT to go.
    Feel better?

    November 20, 2013 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  17. Zane

    It would have been nice to have at least mentioned ALL the recipients especially since you took time to mention past ones. We got a whole paragraph on Ernie Eubank's baseball career , but no mention of several recipients. Great job CNN.

    November 20, 2013 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  18. Agnostickids

    Conservative babies…you better get all your whining out while you can: you know that within a few months, after the media moves on to another project to incite the American populace, the ACA will be working and forgotten.

    President Obama still has three years and this ACA thingy will be history by January. You know it's true. But then you'll be on here whining about something else entirely.

    Aw, if only fox news would let you write your little cries of despair on their news site. But they don't believe in free speech, so you come here, to attack REAL American citizens with your ignorant vitriol.

    Sad little conservatives. Now get a job already!

    November 20, 2013 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  19. carol

    A very nice man and president. The rich inherit their positions –Bush, Romney would not have been much without their dads, but Clinton and Obama worked hard and made it. Therefore they understand the middle class.
    PS: Maybe that is why after bankrupting businesses and the country the middle class were losing 700,000 job a month at the end of the Bush era and today we are adding jobs. We'd add more if the CEO's in this country had a wage that was NOT 400% more than their average worked.

    November 20, 2013 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  20. Capper

    Why do we need to recognize people already recognized. Why can't these awards go to the small guy or women no one has heard about but do amazing things. This is just politics and I'm disappointed that Obama has followed the crowd.

    November 20, 2013 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  21. Tony in Maine

    Of course, had it been President Brendan O'Brian, and a Republican at that, the haters would have been filled with great joy.

    November 20, 2013 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  22. k.jones

    Clinton and Winfrey what a suprise......garbage

    November 20, 2013 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  23. mbane

    No one contributed more to freedom this past year than Edward Snowden. He should be getting a medal. Who the heck gave George W Bush a medal of freedom? He's a wanted war criminal.

    November 20, 2013 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  24. Nancy

    You'd think this article would at least mention the names of ALL the honorees. Poor reporting.

    November 20, 2013 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  25. Ben

    Because the CLEARLY isn't a political PR move to detract attention from the still-floundering economy, a presidency filled with record-breaking numbers of conveniently ignored scandals and lies, and a failed attempt at socialized healthcare which will hurt more than it helps.

    Nope. I bet he REALLY CARES about freedom.

    November 20, 2013 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14