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. Foxxy

    Monica Lewinsky.

    Nation's Highest Honor.

    What's wrong with this picture?

    November 20, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  2. theemptyone1

    Gloria Steinem? Gloria Steinem and her NOW organization called for the elimination of white men and stated that "No consciences white woman would give birth to a white man's baby. Gloria Steinem came from a home where her father deserted early, fueling her lifelong projected hatred of men as a result. This call to genocide that has had a general expression in social trends all over the Western world deserves a "Medal of Freedom." Yes, and War is Peace" and Ignorance is Strength." (Modern equivalents; "We're waging peace," – Bush, "Diversity is Strength" – the Left).

    More evidence of Western Decline and a society going off the rails.

    November 20, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  3. jimmy crack corn and I dont care

    opra got a medal, who let her in here . . . .

    November 20, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  4. Hugh J'Ardonn

    For "Steve" who wrote, "...the rest of us want prosperity and will keep voting Democrat." The Democrats only want your money so they can give it to those who won't do things for themselves. The Democrats will ultimately kill the United States as we knew it.

    November 20, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  5. Dakar

    I hear the thing that pushed Bill Clinton into the winning group was his pardon of fugitive financier and Dem-fund raiser extraordinaire Mark Rich on Clinton's last day as president. it was a great blow for freedom!

    November 20, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  6. alyssa mccord

    haha bill clinton really?? giving that guy an award he must have bought it!!oprah does deserve it though!!

    November 20, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |

    Really? Really? That is all I got.

    November 20, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  8. Call me by my first name, Sergeant!

    A lot of bitter people sounding off today. Well, everyday I should say. Either way, commenting gets you nowhere, go out and vote! If you fail to do so, you have no say. If your favorite candidate loses, deal with it! God bless America!

    November 20, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  9. Bill Myers from Long Island

    Before any of these people truly qualify for such an award, then every fallen American soldier should get one first.

    November 20, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  10. just saying

    bill clinton looks like he is afraid of obama strangling him with that medal. clinton's comments about obamacare were not well received by the liar in chief.

    November 20, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  11. Mark

    This award is a joke. Most of these people are famous who already get enough praise at it is. Where are the average Joe Citizens? This president is driving me up a wall. The country is falling apart and he just can't stop his rampage of damage he is causing.

    November 20, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  12. Trev

    Oprah gets a medal of 'freedom'? This is equivalent to oboingo getting the Nobel Peace prize his first year of office

    November 20, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  13. Richard Cardenas

    Please journalists. When you are writing an article about 16 things, just list the 16 things in bullet points. You bullet point 7 of the things? Really? I had to go to the official white house press release just to see who the 16 people are in list form. This article is written and organize horribly.

    November 20, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  14. GWP

    A Socialist and a Race Baiter. That just great.

    November 20, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  15. vgnsnr

    Apparently, this is now just like the "Nobel Piece Price": something to avoid if you don't want to be in really bad company.

    November 20, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  16. jonjojr

    All his friends. Rich people congratulating other rich people. What happen to the ordinary people of American who bust their buns making this country a better place to live.

    November 20, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  17. Reynaldo

    Above all, honor your commitments, Mr. President.

    November 20, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  18. LWJR

    King jerObama did the WOODSTOCK awards today. Every LIB ACTIVIST and CRANK who have torn this country down got an award....come one...bra burning Gloria Steinhem....who has done more to create the high divorce rate in our country than any other single human bieing? What a Farce this administration is.

    November 20, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  19. Tomas

    Academy Awards night for politician's

    November 20, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  20. Vlittle

    Clinton should be in handcuffs. He is a war criminal who ordered the bombing of Christian Serbs.

    November 20, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  21. The reporter

    This is a total joke.

    November 20, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  22. Nathan

    What a bunch of crap ; medals for what; I never saw these pukes on a battlefield; clinton got his for eating and fornicating ....................

    November 20, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  23. Anonymous

    Oprah did give away those cars....and kept a roof over Gail's head all these years...

    November 20, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  24. Gyrogearloose

    Uggggh. What is the meaning of the word 'is'?

    November 20, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  25. Chris

    17 if you count the one that he kept for himself.

    November 20, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
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