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Poet, Basketball Legend, Former President Among Medal of Freedom Recipients

February 15, 2011 at 6:37 PM EST
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The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, was awarded to 15 individuals Tuesday, including former President George H.W. Bush, billionaire investor Warren Buffett and poet Maya Angelou. Kwame Holman reports on the ceremony.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, celebrating extraordinary lives and achievements with the Medal of Freedom. A White House ceremony today honored 15 people for their important contributions to national security, world peace, culture and other endeavors.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has the story.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

KWAME HOLMAN: Baseball great Stan Musial, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and former Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy-Smith — just a cross-section of the diverse group of recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented this afternoon in the East Room of the White House.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: President Kennedy once said, during a tribute to the poet Robert Frost, that a nation reveals itself not only by the men and women it produces, but by the men and women that it honors; the people that it remembers. I heartily agree. When you look at the men and women who are here today, it says something about who we are as a people.

KWAME HOLMAN: Among the awardees were artists painter Jasper Johns and author Maya Angelou.

BARACK OBAMA: I won’t try to say it better than Maya Angelou herself, who wrote that: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again. Lift up your eyes upon the day breaking for you. Give birth again to the dream.”

KWAME HOLMAN: There were advocates, labor leader John Sweeney and environmental lawyer John Adams, businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett.

BARACK OBAMA: You see him devoting the vast majority of his wealth to those around the world who are suffering, or sick, or in need of help. And he uses his stature as a leader to press others of great means to do the same.

A philanthropist is a lover of humanity, and there’s no word that fits Warren better.

I should point out he’s so thrifty, I had to give him a White House tie…

(LAUGHTER)

BARACK OBAMA: … the last time he came here to visit.

(LAUGHTER)

KWAME HOLMAN: Human and civil rights figures were honored, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein, and Sylvia Mendez, the plaintiff in a landmark school desegregation case, and Georgia Congressman John Lewis.

BARACK OBAMA: There’s a quote inscribed over a doorway in Nashville where students first refused to leave lunch counters 51 years ago this February. And the quote said, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” It’s a question John Lewis has been asking his entire life.

It’s what led him back to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma after he had already been beaten within an inch of his life days before. It’s why, time and again, he faced down death so that all of us could share equally in the joys of life.

KWAME HOLMAN: Basketball legend Bill Russell, who helped win 11 championships with the Boston Celtics and was the first African-American to coach in the NBA.

BARACK OBAMA: When a restaurant refused to serve the black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players and made possible the success of so many who would follow.

And I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.

KWAME HOLMAN: Libby Little accepted the award on behalf of her husband, Dr. Tom Little, an ophthalmologist murdered in Afghanistan last year.

The last to be honored: former President George H.W. Bush.

BARACK OBAMA: Not simply for the years he spent as our 41st president. We honor George Herbert Walker Bush for service to America that spanned nearly 70 years. From a decorated Navy pilot who nearly gave his life in World War II to U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; from CIA director to U.S. envoy to China to the vice presidency — his life is a testament that public service is a noble calling.

This is a gentleman, inspiring citizens to become “points of light” in service to others, teaming up with a onetime political opponent to champion relief for the victims of the Asian tsunami, the Hurricane Katrina.

And then, just to cap it off, well in the 80s, he decides to jump out of airplanes…

(LAUGHTER)

BARACK OBAMA: … because, as he explains, “It feels good.”

(LAUGHTER)

KWAME HOLMAN: President Obama awarded the medals, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to the 14 men and women present.

GWEN IFILL: German — German Chancellor Angela Merkel was also honored today. President Obama said he will present her award when she visits Washington later this year.