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. dax

    Clinton deserves the medal for giving Obamacare the kiss of death.

    November 20, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  2. Pat F

    "This thing is the biggest fairy tale ever!"

    Bill Clinton in 2008 on Obama's presidential candidacy.

    November 20, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  3. jgoodie

    Oprah? Please, give me a break.....

    November 20, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  4. Matt

    So the only qualification to win this is that the President says so or you've donated to the President? See legit

    November 20, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  5. TheTruth

    He can honor JFK, but Gettysburg is beneath him?

    November 20, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  6. bxgrrl

    Sad that this award has become about as meaningful as the gazzilion "music" awards held in the course of a year.

    November 20, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  7. Dave in Houston

    This is sad. Like giving the Nobel PEACE prize to a terrorist. Oh wait, that has already been done (Arafat). Sad.

    November 20, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  8. rob0rah

    You just know that Bill is reminiscing about Monica...............

    November 20, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  9. mfh

    That medal just lost all of its meaning, like the Noble Peace prize did.

    November 20, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  10. Mark

    How telling: to put a Medal on a serial rapist who molested a girl barely of drinking age in the Oval Office, using an inanimate object, then induced his friends and wife to lie on his behalf, lied straight in the face of the American people, perjured himself, and would still be lying about it if DNA hadn't shown up to expose him. That's messed up.

    November 20, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  11. JP


    This is a civilian honor. I'm not saying that military personnel don't deserve the many medals that can be given to them but the presidential medal of freedom just isn't one of them.

    November 20, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  12. Chris

    Giving the highest civilian award to an impeached President, someone who says if you disagree with the current President you are a racist and the editor of one of the most liberal and slanted newspaper in history.

    Where are the regular people who don't have political pull or millions to donate?

    November 20, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  13. Mike Wallace

    Holy bejeezus conservatives are really off of their rocker. For the love of all that is holy, look up the medal and how it is awarded before commenting. Perhaps look at previous recipients as well.. like Bear Bryant.

    November 20, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  14. JoeJoeJoe

    There just seems to be so many medal of Freedom it's importance is diminished... And why does a former President really need another Medal?

    November 20, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  15. Christof

    Some of you people are really pretty thick, if you are military you can not get the medal of freedom. Its a civilian reward.... as in you need to be a civilian to recieve it. So police, and military are out no matter how deserving you think they may be. By the way my eyebrows raised a bit when Oprah recieved the award, however if you look at her charity work which she fronts the cost of administration so all of the funds go directly to the source. She is quite impressive, there are almost no organisations out there that raises funds in the 100's of millions and actually gives the full some to the cause. How much money have you lot raised for charity this week?

    November 20, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  16. Charles

    Is this now the Presidential Minority Medal? Aside from the token adulterer that is.

    November 20, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  17. Thirsty Bob

    A touching photo of two smug psychopaths. Makes me feel all warm inside. Oh.....wait........that's just heart-burn.

    November 20, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  18. True Libertarian

    So to be awarded the medal of freedom you have to have a ton of cash. Got it. But what about the freedom part?

    November 20, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  19. Name

    How much did they pay him?

    November 20, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  20. Mount Of Olives


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

    So please explain how the war criminal George Dubya Bush got one ?
    You are pathetic.

    November 20, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  21. votershavenoclue

    Nation honors it's filthiest.

    November 20, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  22. JIm O

    Bill Clinton internationally disgraces the United States and gets a medal for it. This is ironic.

    November 20, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  23. Jack

    Chao: 30-40 percent of ObamaCare website yet to be built

    November 20, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  24. Jerry

    Kissy, kissy! Can you buy people?! A resounding yes!!! The richer you are, the more you are worth!

    What lying hypocrisy. Oops! Sorry Mr. Obama...

    November 20, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  25. wendel

    so much sour grapes on this site. Typical repo reactions. Why use praise or help fix a problem? it is so much more fun to tear it down or ridicule others . Lots of deserving people doing good work throughout the world.

    November 20, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
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