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. 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 and Oprah has been angry with Obama for not giving her the access that she believes she deserves. Of course, in this "participation trophy" world that we're living in, these "medals" don't really amount to squat.

    November 20, 2013 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  2. JL

    When George Bush's approval rating fell to 37% as Obama's just did in a CBS poll, do you think the lead CNN article showed a picture of Bush hanging a medal around some other Republican's neck?
    The answer is NO. All you heard about was Bush's horrible approval numbers. Obama is in the same territory and CNN is looking for anything and everything that they can do to turn public opinion around. I'm sick of fake news.

    November 20, 2013 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  3. Jay

    Waiting for this to be re-christened as the Congressional Medal of Favor award. You do me a favor, I'll do you a favor. The expanse of plutocratic favoritism knows no bounds.

    November 20, 2013 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  4. Anthony

    Be nice if he would honor his word.

    November 20, 2013 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  5. steven

    Clinton has done more for society than any of you ever will. Oprah gives of her time and money to causes. Meanwhile you sit here and gripe.

    November 20, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  6. Rap Poison

    LOL. I think Oprah was hoping for a cabinet position. After all she's done to get this disaster elected, all she got is a lousy metal. You can't make this up.

    November 20, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  7. shelleigh

    They had to increase the debt ceiling of our Country to pay our bills and we can afford to waste money like this? That bothers me more than the list of people he gave the awards too.

    "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."

    November 20, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  8. Anonymous

    Please. The medal of freedom, has about as much to do with freedom, as the patriot act has to do with being patriotic; or the Peace prize has to do with peace, or "Citizens united" has to do with citizens actually being united, or SOPA has to do with online piracy, etc. etc.

    You see where I'm going with that.

    November 20, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  9. American Patriot

    Only in America can you get a medal after committing perjury...that is if you're a high ranking politician or Clapper. Any citizen would be in prison.

    November 20, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  10. martiniano

    We are losing our nation America. Look at this list of wealthy people receiving this award and then think about the people who you believe have really had a positive impact on America. Not on baseball or TV, for America. How much did you and I pay to allow Obama and Bush before him and all the rest hand out "Knighthoods" to people because they are wealthy? This award should be voted on just like the CNN Hero of the Year award.

    November 20, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  11. Gary Fields

    This medal is now worthless. It's just something to give to friends and politically correct allies. It has no real meaning, just like a Nobel prize awarded for a slide show or being a politician.

    November 20, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  12. vanblane

    What a joke. If I were in the military, I would throw-up.

    November 20, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  13. Kashta

    Congratulations Coach Dean Smith. No mention in this article but an extrodinary man in his own right. His health kept him from attending but he was well deserving.

    November 20, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  14. Sharky

    @Catori Shadi–

    Actually no Clinton did not. Republicans in 1997 were the ones that cut spending, because Clinton signed the law in 1993 to INCREASE spending which did NOT work so when the Republicans took back Congress in 1997 the bill was put forth to cut taxes or spending. Clinton did nothing you proclaim. As for reducing the debt, again NOPE he took money from the social security payroll taxes to help in that department thus depleting the other financially. He shifted money that was all. He also got lucky given the technological era and the net were in full swing at the time to then reap in the money. However, Reagan also did help a bit, but in truth Clinton really did not do much for the economy that you think he did.

    November 20, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  15. nik green

    How on *Earth* did George H. W. Bush win the Presidential Medal of Freedom? What exactly did he do to deserve it? I guess Orwell was right – freedom is slavery.

    November 20, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  16. JC

    Another joke!

    November 20, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  17. Foxxy

    Good to know that getting an intern to blow you gets you the nations highest honor.

    November 20, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  18. Foxxy

    So having an intern go down on you gets you the nation's highest honor.

    November 20, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  19. John

    Folks, remember this is a civilian award. I fully support the military, but this award is not intended for military personnel. They are awarded the Medal of Honor, among other prestigious awards. The Medal of Freedom has always been our version of knighting someone. Pretty much every former president since the award was invented has received it, many atheletes, actors, writers, philanthropists, etc. have received this award. Mocking the recipients simply because President Obama is awarding them, is ridiculous.

    November 20, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  20. Jack


    November 20, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  21. Sharky

    Communist. LOL Enjoy the monstrosity coming your way.

    You are so naive.

    November 20, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  22. jrzydvl

    Oprah ? Really ? Really ?

    November 20, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  23. Hugh DaMan

    Former Presidents should be ineligible for the award no matter what party they come from and no matter what they do for anyone after they leave office. It detracts from the award because it seems obligatory that the next president will have to give the medal to a previous president. Obama's replacement will give it to Bush, and the president after that will give it to Obama, etc.

    November 20, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  24. brian


    A. Yes he was impeached but not convicted.

    November 20, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  25. Really

    That horn ball is one of Americas finest??. Give me a break! Who picks these recipients?

    November 20, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
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