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. Matt

    Country star for being a country star? Baseball player for being a baseball player? – it's called a Medal of FREEDOM? What does the medal stand for? freedom? Or just being good at what you did?

    November 20, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  2. Carl

    No mention of Dean Smith??

    November 20, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  3. gv

    Oprah Winfry?!! are you kidding me? I guess that's payback for donations and saying "He's brilliant!". Oprah Winfry???! how incredulous,,,, personally i dont know Oprah, but isnt there about 100 or so other people that have done a lot more for society?
    Scientists, engineers, (Elon Musk for example, single handedly reviving space exploration and clean vehicles... etc.) There are probably at least 100 other people we can name more deserving, have money and donating a few bucks to Obama's campaign should not be the deciding factor... oh forgot to mention, shes black too, wonder if that had anything to do with the decision? How Sad.

    November 20, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  4. Shavella

    Still trying to figure why the hell did Oprah receive one. Don't get me wrong the things that Oprah has been through her success is well deserved but people give her way too praise. Like really Obama? You could've replaced her with someone else who has did more for this country. & as for the others Congratulations, especially you Ms. Gloria & Bill Clinton; Clinton kept this economy well balanced before Bush ruined it & Ms. Gloria I appreciate your activism for us women. Well deserved, despite what these childish Reps of today say.

    November 20, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  5. wildman38

    what a joke you get an award after being impeached Mr. Re-tread Clinton.

    November 20, 2013 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  6. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    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!
    Totally agree with your post.

    November 20, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  7. rdg18

    The award has become the liberal loyalty award, nothing more.

    November 20, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  8. Nik

    How about we award this award to military personal that work long hours in the dessert, rucking miles and miles with loaded gear. How about soldiers that put their lives on the line to save people such as Oprah. WTF is the world coming to. I can put on a suit and do my job behind a desk giving orders or you can tune in every day at 4pm and see me on TV interviewing people. This is sicking

    November 20, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  9. Melanie

    Take a political science course, people. The president CAN NOT do everything. The president must work with Congress to accomplish anything politcally and in case you didn't notice, Congress does nothing but fight among party lines. The inability of our Congress to compromise is the real problem. Or really, the inability of the American people to compromise is a problem. Everyone CAN NOT have everything. This is life. We want programs but no taxes. We want freedoms but we want the security that government provides.*WE* need to acknowledge that government can't do and solve everything. Then we need to vote in the people who will compromise and do what's best for the country, not for a handful of people.

    November 20, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  10. Richard L Smith

    Where, in God's name did the President get that Oprah is/was such an outstanding news journalist? She is nothing more than a talk show host that made it big. Philanthropy? Give me untold millions whether they be ill-gotten gains or whatever, and watch me give away tons of cash. Then maybe I'll get in line for one of those (which is quickly becoming meaningless) medals, which I will proudly reject. Give mine to Edward Snowden. I disagree that sports figures should even be elgible for the original intent of this now tarnished piece of metal.

    November 20, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  11. Rudy NYC

    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
    Ignorance is bliss. Some one should tell the haters that the Medal of Freedom was created by JFK, but never gave one away before he was assasinated 50 years ago.

    ""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."

    November 20, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  12. Wyckette

    Wasn't Mrs. Dean Smith there to accept the medal for her husband? CNN should start publishing full reports.

    November 20, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  13. david

    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

    November 20, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  14. jim

    Let's just call it the Democratic Party Medal of Popularity and be done with it.

    But Ernie Banks deserves it. He is a class act and a good man.

    November 20, 2013 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  15. brad

    All these "awards" are following along the same lines of the communist party..........they create "heros" to distract people from history people.......we are slowly becomming a socialist country under obamas and the dems "rule"

    November 20, 2013 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  16. Don

    Sharing some in house back slapping.. They got tired of scratching each others back so decided to award each other..

    November 20, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  17. BK

    Looks like he took some advice from Winfrey.

    "You get a medal! You get a medal! Everybody gets a medal!"

    November 20, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  18. american

    What a crock

    November 20, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  19. Robert Bailey

    I believe it's freedom from moral values.

    November 20, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  20. Raymond R

    The highest award is generally intended for civilian heros who have given everything and sometimes their life in service of mankind. Other than build a media empire for the greater good of Opra Winfrey how does she qualify as a hero? I know she has given away alot to her fans but we all know that was part of her brilliant marketing strategy. Still nothing that makes her a hero. I wont even bother with Bill Clinton, thats not not even worth it.

    November 20, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  21. nk

    What a rag tag group of people who don't deserve this award. A few undoubtedly do though.

    November 20, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  22. Ren

    Wow, this is a disgrace...JFK's medal being dishonored...given to a talk show host? and a man who has settled out of court for raping women? What the hell is wrong with this country.

    November 20, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  23. DMD

    What a joke! About as funny as Obama getting a Nobel Prize.

    November 20, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  24. Stop making sense

    Oprah? Oprah? For real? The woman who can't get her own relationship straightened out yet yammers on and on about how others should run their relationships? The woman who is so "spiritual" yet can't settle on a single faith to which she ascribes? The woman who is so "open" with her audience yet makes her staff sign gag orders as a condition of employment, basically mocking the First Amendment? Oh yeah, she's a worthy recipient.

    November 20, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  25. Mistro

    Such a nice timely award ceremony – wonder if they asked to speed up it's scheduling to try and deflect the daily and incredible increasing negative criticism this president is duly getting. I feel sorry for the folks that continue to back this guy after all the BS he has shoveled out.

    November 20, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
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