WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor Wednesday to 16 Americans, including Kentucky native and country music legend Loretta Lynn, in a star-studded and often poignant celebration at the White House.
Former President Bill Clinton, iconic talk show host Oprah Winfrey and the first American woman to fly in space, the late astronaut Sally Ride, were among the leaders of sports, politics, science and the arts to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In a 45-minute ceremony in the ornate East Room, Obama paid tribute to each recipient. Lynn, he said, emerged as one of the first successful female country music vocalists in the early 1960s, but only after receiving 17 blue ribbons at the local fair for her canned vegetables.
“Her first guitar cost $17, and with it this coal miner’s daughter gave voice to a generation, singing what no one wanted to talk about and saying what no one wanted to think about,” he said. “Now, over 50 years after she cut her first record – and canned her first vegetables – Loretta Lynn still reigns as the rule-breaking, record-setting queen of country music.”
Obama helped Lynn, 81, to the front of the stage and gave her a shoulder to lean on as a military aide read a list of her accomplishments as a singer, songwriter and author. Then, Obama fastened a dark-blue ribbon with a white star around her neck before she slowly walked back to her seat, where she blew kisses to the audience.
First lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, as well as members of Congress and guests including movie director Steven Spielberg, were in the audience. Clinton’s wife, former Secretary of State and possible presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, and daughter, Chelsea, were seated at the front of the crowded room.
The Medal of Freedom is given to those 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,” according to the White House.
“These are the men and women who in their extraordinary lives remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit, the values that define us as Americans, the potential that lives inside of all of us,” Obama said.
In holding the event Wednesday, Obama honored the legacy of President John F. Kennedy, who established the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago this week in Dallas, two weeks before he could honor the inaugural class of 31 recipients. Instead, President Lyndon Johnson presided over the ceremony at the White House the same day Kennedy’s family moved out.
“I hope we carry away from this a reminder of what JFK understood to be the essence of the American spirit,” Obama said. “Some of us may be less talented, but we all have the opportunity to serve and to open people’s hearts and minds in our smaller orbits.”
Others honored Wednesday: former Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks, known as “Mr. Cub;” former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee; the late Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii; Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton University scholar of psychology; former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar; chemist and environmental scientist Mario Molina; the late civil rights leader Bayard Rustin; jazz trumpeter, pianist and composer Arturo Sandoval; former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith; writer and activist Gloria Steinem; civil rights leader Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian; and Patricia Wald, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Inouye’s wife stood in for him while Ride and Rustin, the other two posthumously honored, in part for helping break down gay barriers, were represented by their partners. Smith, who is suffering from a neurological disorder, was not able to attend.
Most of the loudest applause was reserved for Clinton, who since leaving the White House has raised money to help in the aftermath of natural disasters and created a foundation to improve health, economies and the environment across the globe.
In recent years, Obama and Clinton have become allies, but the relationship between the 42nd and 44th presidents remains fraught with complications. Just last week, Clinton urged Obama to allow Americans to keep their insurance as part of the new troubled health care law. The two hugged briefly.
“I’m grateful, Bill, as well for the advice and counsel that you’ve offered me on and off the golf course,” Obama said. “And most importantly, for your lifesaving work around the world, which represents what’s the very best in America. So thank you so much, President Clinton.”
Later, the Obamas and the Clintons traveled to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath near the eternal flame that marks Kennedy’s grave. As they walked up to the site, Obama and Clinton each held one hand of Kennedy’s sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy, as she climbed the steps.
In the evening, Obama was to deliver a speech on Kennedy’s legacy of service at a dinner attended by many members of the Kennedy family, including Robert Kennedy’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and John F. Kennedy’s only surviving sibling, Jean Kennedy Smith.
In the last five decades, more than 500 people have been awarded the Medal of Freedom, including some in attendance Wednesday night: baseball great Hank Aaron, singer Aretha Franklin, economist Alan Greenspan, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.