Obama Awards Medal Of Freedom To Bill Clinton, Others

President Obama bestowed the highest civilian award on an array of stars Monday. The 16 recipients of the Medal of Freedom — from former President Bill Clinton to country singer Loretta Lynn, from feminist Gloria Steinem and legendary college basketball coach Dean Smith to Judge Patricia Wald — assembled at the White House.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The White House has been a pretty grim place lately, between the health care debacle and the president's sinking poll numbers. So today brought a welcome change of pace for President Obama. He awarded the Medal of Freedom to 16 Americans. It's the highest civilian honor the president can bestow. Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Even by White House standards, this event had a star power you rarely see. Steven Spielberg and Hillary Clinton sat in the audience, minor celebrities compared to those being honored: Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey; 16 total leaders from sports, entertainment, politics and science. President Obama described how each one overcame hurdles to reach this summit. Baseball legend Ernie Banks:

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The man who came up through the Negro Leagues, making $7 a day; and became the first black player to suit up for the Cubs, and one of the greatest hitters of all time.

SHAPIRO: The late astronaut Sally Ride.

OBAMA: As the first American woman in space, Sally didn't just break the stratospheric glass ceiling; she blasted through it.

SHAPIRO: Country music icon Loretta Lynn.

OBAMA: 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.

SHAPIRO: Obama recognized one of Martin Luther King's closest advisers. The late Bayard Rustin was chief organizer for the March on Washington.

OBAMA: 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.

(AUDIENCE APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: A faint strain of politics always winds through the Medal of Freedom selections. President Obama talked about Republican Sen. Dick Lugar's commitment to bipartisan problem-solving, and Gloria Steinem's commitment to activism. One medal went to the late Daniel Inouye, who represented Obama's birth state of Hawaii in the Senate.

Oprah Winfrey received a medal. She's been one of the president's most prominent supporters.

OBAMA: Early in Oprah Winfrey's career, her bosses told her she should change her name to Susie.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: I have to pause here to say, I got the same advice.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: And finally, Obama gave President Clinton a tribute that could have come directly from an Obama campaign rally.

OBAMA: 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.

SHAPIRO: President John F. Kennedy established this award 50 years ago. When the ceremony ended, the Obamas and the Clintons went to Arlington Cemetery together, and laid a wreath at President Kennedy's grave.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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