President Barack Obama awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor Wednesday to 16 Americans, including one of the greatest living jazz artists, Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, at 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 the 45-minute ceremony, Obama paid tribute to each recipient, including Sandoval, who he said thwarted the law during the Cold War by listening to jazz on the radio in Cuba before defecting to the United States, not knowing whether he would ever see his parents again.
“Born into poverty in Cuba and held back by his government, he risked everything to share his gifts with the world,” Obama said. “In the decades since, this astonishing trumpeter, pianist and composer has inspired audiences in every corner of the world and awakened a new generation of great performers. He remains one of the best ever to play.”
Sandoval defected to the United States in 1990 with help from his mentor, Dizzy Gillespie, and later became an American citizen.
“There isn’t any place on Earth where the people don’t know about jazz,” Obama noted Sandoval likes to say. “And that’s true in part because musicians like him have sacrificed so much to play it.”
Obama patted Sandoval, 64, on his back when he walked to the front of the stage to listen to a military aide read a list of his accomplishments, including nine Grammy Awards. Then, Obama fastened a dark-blue ribbon with a white star around his neck before Sandoval smiled and walked back to his seat.
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 in 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; country music great Loretta Lynn; former University of North Carolina basketball head 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 delivered a speech on Kennedy’s legacy of service at a dinner Wednesday at the Smithsonian American History Museum, at which Sandoval performed. 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, attended.
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.