WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama recognized a former president and 14 artists, athletes, civil rights activists, humanitarians and others yesterday with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for contributions to society that he said speak to "who we are as a people."
The nation's highest civilian honor, it is given in recognition of contributions to U.S. national security, world peace, culture or other significant public or private endeavors.
Some of the loudest applause during the White House ceremony was reserved for George H.W. Bush, who has devoted nearly 70 of his 86 years to public service, starting when he joined the Navy on his 18th birthday. He served as a congressman from Texas, UN ambassador, Republican Party chairman, U.S. envoy to China, director of central intelligence, vice president for two terms and 41st president, one term.
Another robust round of applause went to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize the first sit-ins at lunch counters that refused to serve blacks. A particularly touching moment occurred during the presentation for Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist who was murdered by the Taliban last August in Afghanistan. His wife, Libby, accepted and Obama rubbed her back as a White House military aide read her husband's medal citation.
The other recipients included: John H. Adams, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Maya Angelou, author and poet, Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway,artist Jasper Johns, Gerda Weissmann Klein, Holocaust survivor, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Sylvia Mendez, a civil rights activist, Angela Merkel, the first woman and first East German to serve as chancellor of a unified Germany, Stan Musial, Hall of Fame baseball player, Bill Russell, the former captain of the Boston Celtics and first black man to become an NBA head coach, Jean Kennedy Smith, founder of VSA, a nonprofit organization and John J. Sweeney, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO.