Obama Awards Medal Of Freedom To 12 Honorees

President Obama awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, to a dozen people Tuesday. The list of names include astronaut John Glenn, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and musician Bob Dylan.

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A diplomat, a civil rights lawyer and a union organizer were some of those honored with this year's Medal of Freedom. It's the nation's highest civilian honor. President Obama presented the medals yesterday in a White House ceremony recognizing Madeleine Albright, John Doar and Delores Huerta, among others. NPR's Scott Horsley was there.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The White House East Room was filled to capacity with friends, reporters and administration officials all hoping to catch a glimpse of this year's Medal of Freedom winners.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is a packed house which is a testament to how cool this group is.

HORSLEY: President Obama noted many of this year's winners are personal heroes of his, like the songwriter from Hibbing, Minnesota whose music opened up a whole new world.

OBAMA: Bob Dylan started out singing other people's songs. But as he says there came a point where I had to write what I wanted to say because what I wanted to say, nobody else was writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOWING IN THE WIND")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?

OBAMA: Bob's voice with its weight, its unique gravely power was redefining not just what music sounded like but the message it carried and how it made people feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOWING IN THE WIND")

DYLAN: (Singing) The answer my friend is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says as a young man trying to be a writer, he found inspiration in the powerful works of Toni Morrison.

TONI MORRISON: (Reading) Please senor, not me. Take her. Take my daughter. Jacob looked up at her, away from the child's feet and was struck by the terror in her eyes. God help me if this is not the most wretched business.

HORSLEY: And when his daughters dive confidently for a basketball, Mr. Obama says, he can see the legacy of coach Pat Summitt. Recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Summit just retired from the University of Tennessee after the winningest career in college hoops history.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Pat Summitt has found a way to do it throughout her brilliant career. If you need a miracle at the end, she can draw one up on the sideline for you.

HORSLEY: Some of the medal winners are familiar names: former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens or Israeli president Shimon Peres. Others are less well known, but no less important. There's Gordon Hirabayashi, who challenged the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, a case that finally brought a measure of justice four decades later. And Dr. Bill Foege - he helped lead the global campaign to wipe out smallpox.

OBAMA: In the 1960s, more than 2 million people died from smallpox every year. Just over a decade later, that number was zero.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says the wide range of honorees is part of what's special about the Medal of Freedom. No one sets out to win one. They just go about their work.

OBAMA: What sets these men and women apart is the incredible impact they have had on so many people, not in short blinding bursts, but steadily over the course of a lifetime.

HORSLEY: Astronaut John Glenn cautioned the president not to put those lifetimes in the past tense just yet. Some medal winners still have more work to do.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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