Remarks by the President at Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony
11:17 A.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning! (Applause.) Good morning, everybody! Everybody, please have a seat. Have a seat.
Well, on behalf of Michelle and myself, welcome to the White House. This is one of my favorite events every year, especially special this year, as I look at this extraordinary group of individuals and our opportunity to honor them with our nation’s highest civilian honor -- the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
And this year, it’s just a little more special because this marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy establishing this award. We’re honored, by the way, today to have with us one of my favorite people -- Ethel Kennedy -- and a pretty good basketball player, President Kennedy’s grandson, Jack. (Applause.)
This medal has been bestowed on more than 500 deserving people. Tonight, I’m looking forward to joining some of these honorees, as well as members of the Kennedy family, as we pay tribute to these 50 years of excellence. And this morning, we’re honored to add 16 new names to this distinguished list.
Today, we salute fierce competitors who became true champions. In the sweltering heat of a Chicago summer, Ernie Banks walked into the Cubs locker room and didn’t like what he saw. “Everybody was sitting around, heads down, depressed,” he recalled. So Ernie piped up and said, “Boy, what a great day! Let’s play two!” (Laughter.) That’s “Mr. Cub” -- a 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. And in the process, 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. (Laughter.)
And that's serious belief. (Laughter.) That is something that even a White Sox fan like me can respect. (Laughter.) But he is just a wonderful man and a great icon of my hometown.
Speaking of sports, Dean Smith is one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history, but his successes go far beyond Xs and Os. Even as he won 78 percent of his games, he graduated 96 percent of his players. The first coach to use multiple defenses in a game, he was the pioneer who popularized the idea of “pointing to the passer” -- after a basket, players should point to the teammate who passed them the ball. And with his first national title on the line, he did have the good sense to give the ball to a 19-year-old kid named Michael Jordan. (Laughter.) Although they used to joke that the only person who ever held Michael under 20 was Dean Smith. (Laughter.)
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 to integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill. That's the kind of character that he represented on and off the court.
We salute innovators who pushed the limits of science, changing how we see the world -- and ourselves. And growing up, Sally Ride read about the space program in the newspaper almost every day, and she thought this was “the coolest thing around.” When she was a PhD candidate at Stanford she saw an ad for astronauts in the student newspaper and she seized the opportunity. As the first American woman in space, Sally didn’t just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, she blasted through it. And when she came back to Earth, she devoted her life to helping girls excel in fields like math, science and engineering. “Young girls need to see role models,” she said, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Today, our daughters -- including Malia and Sasha -- can set their sights a little bit higher because Sally Ride showed them the way.
Now, all of us have moments when we look back and wonder, “What the heck was I thinking?” I have that -- (laughter) -- quite a bit. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has made that simple question his life’s work. In a storied career in Israel and America, he basically invented the study of human decision-making. He’s helped us to understand everything from behavioral economics to “Does living in California make people happy?” It’s an interesting question. He’s also been called an expert on irrational behavior -- so I'm sure that he could shed some light on Washington. (Laughter.)
But what truly sets Daniel apart is his curiosity. Guided by his belief that people are “endlessly complicated and interesting,” at 79 he’s still discovering new insights into how we think and learn, not just so we understand each other, but so we can work and live together more effectively.
Dr. Mario Molina’s love of science started as a young boy in Mexico City, in a homemade laboratory in a bathroom at home. And that passion for discovery led Mario to become one of the most respected chemists of his era. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize -- or the Nobel Prize, rather, not only for his path-breaking research, but also for his insistence that when we ignore dangerous carbon emissions we risk destroying the ozone layer and endangering our planet. And thanks to Mario’s work, the world came together to address a common threat, and today, inspired by his example, we’re working to leave our planet safer and cleaner for future generations.
We also have to salute musicians, who bring such joy to our lives. 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 -- (laughter) -- and made her “Canner of the Year.” (Laughter.) Now, that’s impressive. (Laughter.)
For a girl from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, 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. And now, over 50 years after she cut her first record -- and canned her first vegetables -- (laughter) -- Loretta Lynn still reigns as the rule-breaking, record-setting queen of country music.
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. “There isn’t any place on Earth where the people don’t know about jazz,” he says, and that’s true in part because musicians like him have sacrificed so much to play it.
We salute pioneers who pushed our nation towards greater justice and equality. A Baptist minister, C.T. Vivian was one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest advisors. “Martin taught us,” he says, “that it’s in the action that we find out who we really are.” And time and again, Reverend Vivian was among the first to be in the action: In 1947, joining a sit-in to integrate an Illinois restaurant; one of the first Freedom Riders; in Selma, on the courthouse steps to register blacks to vote, for which he was beaten, bloodied and jailed. Rosa Parks said of him, “Even after things had supposedly been taken care of and we had our rights, he was still out there, inspiring the next generation, including me,” helping kids go to college with a program that would become Upward Bound. And at 89 years old, Reverend Vivian is still out there, still in the action, pushing us closer to our founding ideals.
Now, early in the morning the day of the March on Washington, the National Mall was far from full and some in the press were beginning to wonder if the event would be a failure. But the march’s chief organizer, Bayard Rustin, didn’t panic. As the story goes, he looked down at a piece of paper, looked back up, and reassured reporters that everything was right on schedule. The only thing those reporters didn’t know was that the paper he was holding was blank. (Laughter.) He didn’t know how it was going to work out, 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. (Applause.)
Speaking of game-changers, disrupters, there was a young girl names Gloria Steinem who arrived in New York to make her mark as a journalist, and magazines only wanted to write articles like “How to Cook without Really Cooking for Men.” (Laughter.) Gloria noticed things like that. (Laughter.) She’s been called a “champion noticer.” She’s alert to all the ways, large and small, that women had been and, in some cases, continue to be treated unfairly just because they’re women.
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. Listen to the voice inside you and follow that.”
When Patricia Wald’s law firm asked if she’d come back after having her first child, she said she’d like some time off to focus on her family -- devoted almost 10 years to raising five children. But Patricia never lost the itch to practice law. So while her husband watched the kids at home, she’d hit the library on weekends. At the age 40, she went back to the courtroom to show the “young kids” a thing or two. As the first female judge on the D.C. Circuit, Patricia was a top candidate for Attorney General. After leaving the bench, her idea of retirement was to go to The Hague to preside over the trials of war criminals. Patricia says she hopes enough women will become judges that “it’s not worth celebrating” anymore. But today, we celebrate her. And along with Gloria, she shows there are all kinds of paths listening to your own voice.
We salute communicators who shined a light on stories no one else was telling. A veteran of World War II and more than a dozen Pacific battles, Ben Bradlee brought the same intensity and dedication to journalism. Since joining The Washington Post 65 years ago, he transformed that newspaper into one of the finest in the world. With Ben in charge, the Post published the Pentagon Papers, revealing the true history of America’s involvement in Vietnam; exposed Watergate; unleashed a new era of investigative journalism, holding America’s leaders accountable and reminding us that our freedom as a nation rests on our freedom of the press. When Ben retired, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put the admiration of many into a poem: “O rare Ben Bradlee/His reign has ceased/But his nation stands/Its strength increased.”
And I also indicated to Ben he can pull off those shirts and I can't. (Laughter.) He always looks so cool in them. (Laughter.)
Early in Oprah Winfrey’s career, her bosses told her she should change her name to Susie. (Laughter.) I have to pause here to say I got the same advice. (Laughter and applause.) They didn't say I should be named "Susie," but they suggested I should change my name. (Laughter.) People can relate to Susie, that's what they said. It turned out, surprisingly, that people could relate to Oprah just fine.
In more than 4,500 episodes of her show, her message was always, "You can." "You can do and you can be and you can grow and it can be better." And she was living proof, rising from a childhood of poverty and abuse to the pinnacle of the entertainment universe. But 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.
And, finally, we salute public servants who’ve strengthened our nation. Daniel Inouye was a humble man and didn’t wear his Medal of Honor very often. Instead, he liked to wear a pin representing the Good Conduct Medal he earned as a teenage private. “To behave yourself takes special effort,” he said, “and I did not want to dishonor my family.” Danny always honored his family and his country, even when his country didn’t always honor him.
After being classified as an “enemy alien,” Danny joined a Japanese American unit that became one of the most decorated in World War II. And as the second-longest serving senator in American history, he showed a generation of young people -- including one kid with a funny name growing up in Hawaii who noticed that there was somebody during some of those hearings in Washington that didn't look like everybody else, which meant maybe I had a chance to do something important, too. He taught all of us that no matter what you look like or where you come from, this country has a place for everybody who’s willing to serve and work hard.
A proud Hoosier, Dick Lugar has served America for more than half a century, from a young Navy lieutenant to a respected leader in the United States Senate. I’ll always be thankful to Dick for taking me -- a new, junior senator -- under his wing, including travels together to review some of his visionary work, the destruction of Cold War arsenals in the former Soviet Union -- something that doesn’t get a lot of public notice, but was absolutely critical to making us safer in the wake of the Cold War.
Now, I should say, traveling with Dick you get close to unexploded landmines, mortar shells, test tubes filled with anthrax and the plague. (Laughter.) His legacy, though, is the thousands of missiles and bombers and submarines and warheads that no longer threaten us because of his extraordinary work. And our nation and our world are safer because of this statesman. And in a time of unrelenting partisanship, Dick Lugar’s decency, his commitment to bipartisan problem-solving, stand as a model of what public service ought to be.
Now, last, but never least, we honor a leader who we still remember with such extraordinary fondness. He still remembers as a child waving goodbye to his mom -- tears in her eyes -- as she went off to nursing school so she could provide for her family. And I think lifting up families like his own became the story of Bill Clinton’s life. He remembered what his mom had to do on behalf of him and he wanted to make sure that he made life better and easier for so many people all across the country that were struggling in those same ways and had those same hopes and dreams. So as a governor, he transformed education so more kids could pursue those dreams. 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. He doesn’t stop. He’s helped lead relief efforts after the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake. His foundation and global initiative have helped to save or improve the lives of literally hundreds of millions of people. And, of course, I am most grateful for his patience during the endless travels of my Secretary of State. (Laughter.)
So I’m grateful, Bill, as well for the advice and counsel that you’ve offered me on and off the golf course. (Laughter.) And most importantly, for your lifesaving work around the world, which represents what’s the very best in America. So thank you so much, President Clinton. (Applause.)
So these are the recipients of the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom. These are the men and women who in their extraordinary lives remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit, the values that define us as Americans, the potential that lives inside of all of us. I could not be more happy and more honored to participate in this ceremony here today.
With that, what I would like to do is invite our honorees to just sit there and let all of us stand and give you a big round of applause. (Applause.)
I guess we should actually give them the medals, though. (Laughter.) Where are my -- here we go. Lee, you want to hit it?
MILITARY AIDE: Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients.
Ernie Banks. (Applause.) With an unmatched enthusiasm for America’s pastime, Ernie Banks slugged, sprinted and smiled his way into the record books. Known to fans as “Mr. Cub,” he played an extraordinary 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs, during which he was named to 11 All-Star teams, hit over 500 home runs, and won back-to-back Most Valuable Player honors. Ernie Banks was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, and he will forever be known as one of the finest power hitters and most dynamic players of all time. (Applause.)
Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee. (Applause.) A titan of journalism, Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee is one of the most respected newsmen of his generation. After serving our nation in World War II, Ben Bradlee went on to defend liberty here at home. Testing the limits of a free press during his tenure as executive editor of The Washington Post, he oversaw coverage of the Watergate scandal and successfully challenged the federal government over the right to publish the Pentagon Papers. His passion for accuracy and unyielding pursuit of truth continue to set the standard for journalism. (Applause.)
The Honorable William J. Clinton. (Applause.) Among the finest public servants of our time, President William J. Clinton argued cases for the people of Arkansas, served his state in the Governor’s Mansion, and guided our nation into a new century. As the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton oversaw an era of challenge and change, prosperity and progress. His work after leaving public office continues to reflect his passionate, unending commitment to improving the lives and livelihoods of people around the world. In responding to needs both at home and abroad, and as founder of the Clinton Foundation, he has shown that through creative cooperation among women and men of goodwill, we can solve even the most intractable problems. (Applause.)
Irene Hirano Inouye, accepting on behalf of her husband, the Honorable Daniel K. Inouye. (Applause.) A true patriot and dedicated public servant, Daniel K. Inouye understood the power of leaders when united in common purpose to protect and promote the tenets we cherish as Americans. As a member of the revered 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Daniel Inouye helped free Europe from the grasp of tyranny during World War II, for which he received the Medal of Honor. Representing the people of Hawaii from the moment the islands joined the Union, he never lost sight of the ideals that bind us across the 50 states. Senator Inouye’s reason and resolve helped make our country what it is today, and for that, we honor him. (Applause.)
Dr. Daniel Kahneman. (Applause.) Daniel Kahneman’s groundbreaking work earned him a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his research developing prospect theory. After escaping from Nazi-occupied France as a young boy and later joining the Israel Defense Forces, Dr. Kahneman grew interested in understanding the origins of people’s beliefs. Combining psychology and economic analysis, and working alongside Dr. Amos Tversky, Dr. Kahneman used simple experiments to demonstrate how people make decisions under uncertain circumstances, and he forever changed the way we view human judgment. (Applause.)
The Honorable Richard G. Lugar. (Applause.) Representing the State of Indiana for over three decades in the United States Senate, Richard G. Lugar put country above party and self to forge bipartisan consensus. Throughout his time in the Senate, he offered effective solutions to our national and international problems, advocating for the control of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. Working with Senator Sam Nunn, Richard Lugar established the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, one of our country’s most successful national security initiatives, helping to sustain American leadership and engage nations in collaboration after decades of confrontation. He remains a strong voice on foreign policy issues, and his informed perspective will have broad influence for years to come. (Applause.)
Loretta Lynn. (Applause.) Born a coal miner’s daughter, Loretta Lynn has followed a bold path to become a legend in country music. A singer, songwriter, and author, she has written dozens of chart-topping songs, released scores of albums, and won numerous accolades. Breaking barriers in country music and entertainment, she opened doors for women not only by winning tremendous achievements, but also by raising issues few dared to discuss. Fearlessly telling her own stories with candor and humor, Loretta Lynn has brought a strong female voice to mainstream music, captured the emotions of women and men alike, and revealed the common truths about life as it is lived. (Applause.)
Dr. Mario Molina. (Applause.) The curiosity and creativity that inspired Mario Molina to convert his family’s bathroom into a laboratory as a child have driven him through decades of scientific research. Born in Mexico, Dr. Molina’s passion for chemistry brought him to the United States, where his investigations of chlorofluorocarbons led to breakthroughs in our understanding of how they deplete the ozone layer. The impact of his discoveries extends far beyond his field, affecting environmental policy and fostering international awareness, as well as earning him the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Today, Dr. Molina remains a global leader, continuing to study air quality, climate change, and the environment that connects us all. (Applause.)
Tam O’Shaughnessy accepting on behalf of her life partner, Dr. Sally K. Ride. (Applause.) Thirty years ago, Dr. Sally K. Ride soared into space as the youngest American and first woman to wear the Stars and Stripes above Earth’s atmosphere. As an astronaut, she sought to keep America at the forefront of space exploration. As a role model, she fought tirelessly to inspire young people -- especially girls -- to become scientifically literate and to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. At the end of her life, she became an inspiration for those battling pancreatic cancer, and for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. The tale of a quiet hero, Sally Ride’s story demonstrates that the sky is no limit for those who dream of reaching for the stars. (Applause.)
Walter Naegle accepting on behalf of his partner, Bayard Rustin. (Applause.) Bayard Rustin was a giant in the American Civil Rights Movement. Openly gay at a time when many had to hide who they loved, his unwavering belief that we are all equal members of a “single human family” took him from his first Freedom Ride to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights movement. Thanks to his unparalleled skills as an organizer, progress that once seemed impossible appears, in retrospect, to have been inevitable. Fifty years after the March on Washington he organized, America honors Bayard Rustin as one of its greatest architects for social change and a fearless advocate for its most vulnerable citizens. (Applause.)
Arturo Sandoval. (Applause.) Arturo Sandoval is one of the world’s finest jazz musicians. Born into poverty in Cuba and held back by his government, he risked everything to share his gifts with the world -- eventually defecting with help from Dizzy Gillespie, his mentor and friend. In the decades since, this astonishing trumpeter, pianist, and composer has inspired audiences in every corner of the world and awakened a new generation of great performers. He remains one of the best ever to play. (Applause.)
Linnea Smith, accepting on behalf of her husband, Dean E. Smith. (Applause.) Dean E. Smith spent 36 seasons taking college basketball to new heights. As head coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he led his team to 11 Final Fours, two national titles, and 879 victories, retiring as the winningest men’s college basketball coach in history. Dean Smith brought the same commitment to supporting his players off the court. He helped more than 96 percent of his lettermen graduate. And in an era of deep division, he taught players to overcome bigotry with courage and compassion. He will forever stand as one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history. (Applause.)
Gloria Steiner. (Applause.) A trailblazing writer and feminist organizer, Gloria Steinem has been at the forefront of the fight for equality and social justice for more than four decades. Instrumental to a broad range of initiatives and issues, from establishing Ms. Magazine and Take Our Daughters to Work Day, to pushing for women’s self-empowerment and an end to sex trafficking. She has promoted lasting political and social change in America and abroad. Through her reporting and speaking, she has shaped debates on the intersection of sex and race, brought critical problems to national attention, and forged new opportunities for women in media. Gloria Steinem continues to move us all to take up the cause of reaching for a more just tomorrow. (Applause.)
Reverend C.T. Vivian. (Applause.) Equipped only with courage and an overwhelming commitment to social justice, the Reverend C.T. Vivian was a stalwart activist on the march toward racial equality. Whether at a lunch counter, on a Freedom Ride, or behind the bars of a prison cell, he was unafraid to take bold action in the face of fierce resistance. By pushing change through nonviolent demonstration and advocacy, C.T. Vivian established and led numerous organizations to support underserved individuals and communities. His legacy of combating injustice will shine as an example for generations to come. (Applause.)
Patricia McGowan Wald. (Applause.) Patricia McGowan Wald made history as the first woman appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Rising to Chief Judge of the Court, she always strove to better understand the law and fairly apply it. After leaving federal service, Judge Wald helped institute standards for justice and the rule of law at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Hailed as a model judge, she laid a foundation for countless women within the legal profession and helped unveil the humanity within the law. (Applause.)
Oprah G. Winfrey. (Applause.) Oprah G. Winfrey is a global media icon. When she launched The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986, there were few women -- and even fewer women of color -- with a national platform to discuss the issues and events shaping our times. But over the 25 years that followed, Oprah Winfrey’s innate gift for tapping into our most fervent hopes and deepest fears drew millions of viewers across every background, making her show the highest-rated talk show in television history. Off screen, Oprah Winfrey has used her influence to support underserved communities and to lift up the lives of young people -- especially young women -- around the world. In her story, we are reminded that no dream can be deferred when we refuse to let life’s obstacles keep us down. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: The Medal of Freedom honorees -- please. (Applause.)
Well, that concludes the formal part of today’s ceremony. I want to thank all of you for being here. Obviously, we are deeply indebted to those who we honor here today. And we’re going to have an opportunity to take some pictures with the honorees and their family members.
The rest of you, I understand the food here is pretty good. (Laughter.) So I hope you enjoy the reception, and I hope we carry away from this a reminder of what JFK understood to be the essence of the American spirit -- that it’s represented here. And some of us may be less talented, but we all have the opportunity to serve and to open people’s hearts and minds in our smaller orbits. So I hope everybody has been as inspired, as I have been, participating and being with these people here today.
Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.)
12:00 P.M. EST