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. Carla

    If this is the nation's highest civilian honor, why was there not enough rooom on this page to list all of them?

    November 20, 2013 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  2. nuclear mike

    And the White HOuse always keeps a few medal cermonies in their reserve agenda for such periods of bad poll numbers to make all look prettier...

    November 20, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  3. bill

    too bad you didn't get to Gettysburg yesterday, and celebrate the greatest president in the history of the US.

    November 20, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  4. ObjectiveGuy

    Sounds like a list of Democrats that he wants to be loyal to him plus high visibility campaign supporters. Does this guy EVER do anything that isn't designed to benefit himself politically? Very unbecoming behavior from the president of the greatest nation on earth.

    November 20, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  5. liberal disease

    how does an impeached President get this award, where have our standard gone?

    November 20, 2013 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  6. WIlly

    I don't hate Oprah but this is Oprah's payment for endorsing BO.

    November 20, 2013 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  7. Ron

    Thomas Jefferson is irate...this type of award is the antithesis of what he foresaw in a democracy. Presidents have become honouring another!

    November 20, 2013 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  8. Sheeples

    This is sickening, A hollow jesture to imply a false ideal of importance. These people have done nothing to deserve anything really. Those medals are not symbols of freedom at all. They are props for the actors to pretend they stood for a great thing in the sight of men. These people really must think symbolism is all it take to fool you people into believing they made a difference. I see the governments approval rating sinking even further still. I hope these blights of deceit find their true rewards sooner before later.

    November 20, 2013 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  9. BAP

    Hey what about me? I have been taking care of disabled Americans for 30 plus years. Just because I am not on TV giving free stuff away and millions of dollars to Africa, not gone into space, not coached a over paid professional sports team, or had sex in the White House with some tart, doesn't mean I don't deserve a medal. The President has become such a disappointment. Good Luck with your legacy.

    November 20, 2013 12:21 pm at 12:21 pm |
  10. Phillp Bunn

    BILL CLINTON!! Are you serious? You mean the same Bill Clinton that lied "under oath" and was later impeached? THAT BILL CLINTON?

    November 20, 2013 12:21 pm at 12:21 pm |
  11. El J

    Clinton's flat-lipped, down turned smile of shame! He knows he doesn't deserve any honors. What a disgrace,

    November 20, 2013 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  12. Kerr Mudgeon

    Bravo to President Obama for recognizing the superior philanthropic work on former President Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. Irrespective to what some mouth-breathers have commented here, both of these citizens have improved living conditions for many less fortunate folks on this planet. Well deserved!

    November 20, 2013 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  13. Wondering

    Did Bill Clinton buy this award by going around and supporting the ACA for Obama? Seems funny that it was Obama's idea to give him the award.

    November 20, 2013 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  14. Tom Kennedy

    Bill Clinton?..............why? Oprah...............really? What a joke.

    November 20, 2013 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  15. Max

    Are you kidding me? Bill Clinton's org. is just a political organization with nice sounding words describing it.

    That award is almost as deserved at Obama's Nobel peace prize!

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

    Well said carol

    November 20, 2013 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  17. Grego

    Does this mean these folks are exempt from Obamacare?

    November 20, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  18. Fluffer Nutter

    When people like Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey win this kind of reward I know they're worthless.

    November 20, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  19. Gates

    someone tell Hillary her husband is getting blown by someone else again.....

    November 20, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  20. Anonymous

    Anyone note the scientists, people who worked through poverty and oppression? Who gave us new knowledge? Who fought for this country when we didn't trust or want his people? America has become so begrudging and so hostile, some of us can't appreciate any goodness or achievement unless it looks and acts just like themselves. Congratulations Medal of Freedom recipients. How many good things did we do or discover today??

    November 20, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  21. I See Your True Face

    I think some of our finest were killed in Benghazi and Afghanistan, who do these others think they are, nothing but political cronies

    November 20, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  22. JoMama

    Seems like a list of Democrats. Well done (not) Obama. Your Presidency is a disgrace to this country.

    November 20, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  23. Mr. M

    We are witnessing the worst criminals the world has ever seen, rewarding themselves with self-congratulation.

    Both they, and the sycophantic Corporate Owned News (CON) need to be brought to justice. Soon!

    "If the American people ever find out what we have done in their names, they'd hunt us down on the streets and hang us from lampposts." ~ Herbert Walker Bush, son of Prescott Bush, the Nazi financier that had his bank seized by the FBI. And farther to George W. Bush, whom Obama recently gave blanket-immunity for all war-crimes too.

    They are ALL in it together. Okay?

    November 20, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  24. Richard L Smith

    I'm with Michael Hunt, Esq. Let me know also, when Edward Snowden gets his medal.

    November 20, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  25. bob

    Zach hit the nail on the head. Typical for Obama to try to divert the public's attention from all the mess he's created. Probably explains why he gave a medal to Clinton. He was also a master of that tactic.....

    November 20, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
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