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President Obama honors achievements of 16 Americans with Medal of Freedom

November 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom to 16 new honorees, the highest award given to civilians in the United States. The medal winners represented a diverse set of accomplishments, from scientists and sports stars to musicians, activists and politicians. Judy Woodruff reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: honoring the accomplishments of notable Americans with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It’s the highest civilian award given in the United States.

John F. Kennedy first proposed the medal 50 years ago, but he died before he could present it to anyone.

Today, following in the tradition of every president since then, President Obama bestowed the honor to a diverse group in the East Room of the White House.

PRESIDENT PRESIDENT OBAMA: On behalf of Michelle and myself, welcome to the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Musicians, scientists and politicians were among those honored.

The group also included Ben Bradlee, who oversaw The Washington Post’s coverage of the Watergate scandal, the late astronaut Sally Ride, whose longtime partner accepted on her behalf, and Mario Molina, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on how pollutants deplete the ozone layer.

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Sports heroes were honored, including Hall of Famer and Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: A man who came up through the Negro Leagues making $7 a day and became the first black player to suit for the Cubs and one of the greatest hitters of all time. Ernie became known as much for his 512 home runs as for his cheer and his optimism and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs would go all the way.


JUDY WOODRUFF: The University of North Carolina’s legendary basketball coach Dean Smith wasn’t able to attend, but his wife did.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Dean Smith is one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history, but his successes go far beyond X’s and O’s.

Even as he won 78 percent of his games, he graduated 96 percent of his players.

While Coach Smith couldn’t join us today due to an illness that he’s facing with extraordinary courage, we also honor his courage in helping to change our country. He recruited the first black scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helped integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill. That’s the kind of character that he represented on and off the court.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, a tribute to two music stars.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Loretta Lynn was 19 the first time she won the big — she won big at the local fair.

Her canned vegetables brought home 17 blue ribbons…


PRESIDENT OBAMA: … and made her Canner of the Year.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: For a girl from Butcher Hollow, Ky., that was fame.

Fortunately for all of us, she decided to try her hand at things other than canning. 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.

As a young man in Cuba, Arturo Sandoval loved jazz so much, it landed him in jail. It was the Cold War, and the only radio station where he could hear jazz was the Voice of America, which was dangerous to listen to.

But Arturo listened anyway. Later, he defected to the United States knowing he might never see his parents or beloved homeland again. Without freedom, he said, there is no life. And, today, Arturo is an American citizen and one of the most celebrated trumpet players in the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This year marks the 50th anniversary for several pivotal moments in civil rights history. Mr. Obama honored two notable figures, the Reverend C.T. Vivian, a leader in the movement, and the late Bayard Rustin, who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.

His partner was on hand.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: But Bayard had an unshakable optimism, nerves of steel, and, most importantly, a faith that if the cause is just and people are organized, nothing can stand in our way.

So, for decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King’s side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay. No medal can change that, but, today, we honor Bayard Rustin’s memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love.


JUDY WOODRUFF: A pioneer of the women’s movement was celebrated as well, Gloria Steinem.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: As a writer, a speaker, an activist, she awakened a vast and often skeptical public to problems like domestic violence, the lack of affordable child care, unfair hiring practices.

And because of her work across America and around the world, more women are afforded the respect and opportunities that they deserve. But she also changed how women thought about themselves. And Gloria continues to pour her heart into teaching and mentoring. Her one piece of advice to young girls is — I love this — do not listen to my advice.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: Listen to the voice inside you and follow that.


JUDY WOODRUFF: The president awarded a medal to President Clinton. While the two men have had their differences over the years, President Obama thanked him today.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: And I think lifting up families like his own became the story of Bill Clinton’s life.

As president, he proved that, with the right choices, you could grow the economy, lift people out of poverty. We could shrink our deficits and still invest in our families, our health, our schools, science, technology. In other words, we can go farther when we look out for each other.

And, as we’ve all seen, as president, he was just getting started.

I’m grateful, Bill, as well for the advice and counsel that you have offered me on and off the golf course…


PRESIDENT OBAMA: … and — and, most importantly, for your lifesaving work around the world, which represents what is the very best in America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two long-serving members of Congress received honors, former Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana and the late Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.

As for Oprah Winfrey, the president cited not just her television shows, but other accomplishments.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Even with 40 Emmys, the distinction of being the first black female billionaire, Oprah’s greatest strength has always been her ability to help us discover the best in ourselves. Michelle and I count ourselves among her many devoted fans and friends.

As one of those fans wrote, “I didn’t know I had a light in me until Oprah told me it was there.”

What a great gift.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Two others received a medal, the Nobel Prize winner psychologist Daniel Kahneman, and Patricia Wald, a former federal appellate judge who served on the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.