Remarks by the President at Presentation of the Medal of Freedom
The East Room
2:22 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much. Everybody, have a seat. Well, welcome to the White House. This is one of my favorite events. Once a year, we set aside this event to celebrate people who have made America stronger, and wiser, and more humane, and more beautiful with our highest civilian honor – the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This year we honor 18. Unfortunately, Stephen Sondheim could not be with us today. I’m going to be presenting him with this award at our 2015 ceremony.
We give thanks to public servants who have devoted their lives to their fellow citizens. When Edward Roybal told Speaker Tip O’Neill that he was starting a Congressional Hispanic Caucus, there were so few Hispanics in Congress that Tip joked they could fit the whole caucus in a phone booth. But Edward saw beyond the times.
As a congressman from Los Angeles for 30 years, he fought for bilingual education, bilingual proceedings in our judicial system, and to make sure Hispanic Americans counted -- literally. Thanks to him, the Census was revised to more accurately count Latinos. Although his roots in America went back hundreds of years, he championed the cause of immigrants, and spoke up for vulnerable communities, and was one of few in the early 1980s calling for more AIDS research. He left us nearly a decade ago, but Edward Roybal was and remains a hero to so many -– not just Latinos but all Americans.
Every girl in Little League, every woman playing college sports, and every parent -– including Michelle and myself -– who watches their daughter on a field or in the classroom is forever grateful to the late Patsy Takemoto Mink. I am particularly grateful because she was my congresswoman for a long time. (Laughter.)
Denied admission to medical school because she was a woman, Patsy went on to law school and to co-authored Title IX, banning gender discrimination in our schools. Patsy was many “firsts” -– including the first woman of color in Congress -– and to those of us in Hawaii, she represented the best of public service and the Aloha spirit.
And if she was a first, she dedicated her life to making sure that she would not be the last. From championing civil rights to fighting for -– fighting against gender discrimination -- Patsy was a passionate advocate for opportunity, equality and realizing the full promise of the American Dream.
When John Dingell’s father, a New Deal Democrat, passed away in 1955, John stepped up. And over the course of six decades -– a congressional career longer than any in history -– John built a peerless record of his own. He gaveled in the vote for Medicare, helped lead the fight for the Civil Rights Act. For more than half a century, in every single Congress, John introduced a bill for comprehensive health care. That is, until he didn’t have to do it anymore. (Laughter and applause.)
I could not have been prouder to have John by my side when I signed the Affordable Care Act into law. John will retire at the end of this session, but at 88, he’s still going strong. And his life reminds us that change takes time; it takes courage and persistence. But if we push hard enough and long enough, change is possible.
As a University of Chicago student, Abner Mikva stopped by the local Democratic headquarters and asked to volunteer. I love this story. A committeeman asked who sent you. And Ab said, nobody. And the committeeman said, we don’t want nobody nobody sent. (Laughter.) That’s Chicago for you.
Despite that abrupt dismissal, Ab went on to devote his life to public service -- reformed Illinois’s criminal code, defended free speech and consumer rights; in 1993, struck down the Pentagon’s ban on gays in the military. He was overturned on that one -– but history proved him right. And he inspired the next generation, including me.
After I graduated from law school, he offered me the chance to be his law clerk. I declined but was extraordinarily grateful, and he forgave me -– (laughter) -- for which I was also grateful. Ab transcends any single moment in recent political history. But he had a hand in shaping some of the best of it. So we’ve got some extraordinary public servants on this stage.
We also give thanks for innovators who’ve changed our world. Mildred Dresselhaus’s high school yearbook contained commentary from her classmates. They printed a mathematical tribute: “Mildred equals brains plus fun. In math and science, she’s second to none.” (Laughter.)
Growing up in New York during the Great Depression, this daughter of Polish immigrants had three clear paths open to her: teaching, nursing, and secretarial school. Somehow she had something else in mind. And she became an electrical engineer and a physicist, and rose in MIT’s ranks, performed groundbreaking experiments on carbon, became one of the world’s most celebrated scientists. And her influence is all around us -– in the cars we drive, the energy we generate, the electronic devices that power our lives. When she arrived at MIT in 1960, only 4 percent of students were women. Today, almost half are, a new generation walking the path that Millie blazed.
Robert Solow’s father was a businessman who handled a lot of documents. And when Robert became an economist, his dad joked, we do the same thing: deliver papers.
But Bob’s influence extends far beyond the page. More than just about any living economist, he has shaped economic policy, and with it, the lives of people everywhere. His insights into how technological progress drives growth transformed our thinking about how to build prosperity, leading to more investments in research and education – in other words, more investments in people.
When he won the Nobel Prize, a colleague wrote, “Economists’ faces lit up all over the world.” And this isn’t exactly an irrationally exuberant group, economists. (Laughter.) They don’t usually get real fired up. But Bob isn’t just admired by his peers; he is adored. And he continues to be a leading voice on the economic challenges of our times, especially when it comes to reversing income inequality and growing the economy for everybody – always pushing our nation to do better for everybody, for all.
So, we give thanks to public servants, we give thanks to innovators, and we give thanks to performers who have captivated our hearts and our minds. The Onion once ran this headline: “Court Rules Meryl Streep Unable to Be Tried by Jury As She Has No Peers.” (Laughter and applause.)
I think this is like the third or fourth award Meryl’s gotten since I’ve been in office, and I’ve said it publicly: I love Meryl Streep. I love her. Her husband knows I love her. Michelle knows I love her. There’s nothing either of them can do about it. (Laughter.)
But, she’s done it all for her craft. She’s sung Abba, which -- that's something. (Laughter.) She learned violin, wore a nun’s habit, faced down a charging lion, mastered every accent under the sun. She inhabits her characters so fully and compassionately, saying, “It’s the great gift of human beings that we have this power of empathy.”
And off screen, as an advocate for women and girls, she uses that gift to help others write the life stories of their choosing, and to encourage greater empathy in the rest of us. So Meryl is truly one of America’s leading ladies.
And then there’s Stevie. Don't get Michelle talking about Stevie Wonder now. (Laughter.) Early copies of Stevie Wonder’s classic album Talking Book had a simple message, written in Braille: “Here is my music. It is all I have to tell you how I feel. Know that your love keeps my love strong.” This is, by the way, the first album I ever bought with my own money. I was 10 years old, maybe 11, with my own cash. I didn't have a lot of it. And I listened to that -- that thing got so worn out, had all scratches. Young people, you won’t remember this, but you’d have albums. (Laughter.) And they’d get scratched.
For more than 50 years, Stevie has channeled his “Innervisions” into messages of hope and healing, in becoming one of the most influential musicians in American history.
A musical prodigy with an electrifying voice, Stevie’s blend of R&B, and jazz, and funk, and blues, and soul, and whatever else you've got, speaks of love and loss, justice and equality, war and peace. But what really defines Stevie’s music is the warmth and humanity that resonate in every note. Some of his songs helped us to fall in love. Others mended our hearts. Some motivated us on the campaign trail. (Laughter.) And thanks to Stevie, all of us have been moved to higher ground.
Alvin Ailey was born during the Depression in small-town Texas. And by the time he was 27, he had founded a dance company of his own in New York City. It became a place where artists of all races had a home. All that mattered was talent. The dances he choreographed were a blend of ballet, modern, and jazz, and they used the blues and spirituals, as well. And through him, African-American history was told in a way that it had never been told before -– with passionate, virtuoso dance performances that transfixed audiences worldwide.
Alvin said that, “Dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.” Alvin Ailey delivered, both through his life and through the dance company that will forever bear his name.
When Isabel Allende learned that her grandfather in Chile was dying, she started writing him a letter. Night after night, she returned to it – until, she realized, she was actually writing her first novel. She’s never really stopped. Her novels and memoirs tell of families, magic, romance, oppression, violence, redemption -– all the big stuff. But in her hands, the big becomes graspable and familiar and human. And exiled from Chile by a military junta, she made the U.S. her home; today, the foundation she created to honor her late daughter helps families worldwide. She begins all her books on January 8th, the day she began that letter to her grandfather years ago. “Write to register history,” she says. “Write what should not be forgotten.”
On the night that the Berlin Wall fell, only one American network anchor was there reporting live. A reporter remembers Ben Bradlee standing in the Post newsroom, watching Tom Brokaw at the Brandenburg Gate and wondering aloud, “How do we beat that?” (Laughter.) “Brokaw’s got this.”
At pivotal moments, Tom got it. He reported on Watergate, snuck a camera into Tiananmen Square, sat down for the first one-on-one with Mikhail Gorbachev by an American TV reporter, covered every presidential election since 1968. We’ve welcomed him into our homes at dinnertime and Sunday mornings. We’ve trusted him to tell us what we needed to know and to ask the questions that needed asking. I know, because I’ve been on the receiving end of some of those questions. (Laughter.) Many of him know -- many know him as the chronicler of the Greatest Generation, and today, we celebrate him as one of our nation’s greatest journalists.
We give thanks to trailblazers who bent the arc of our nation towards justice. In the 1950s, golfer Charlie Sifford won the Negro National Open – five times in a row. But by the time he became the first African American to earn a PGA Tour card, most of his best golf was behind him.
On the tour, Charlie was sometimes banned from clubhouse restaurants. Folks threatened him, shouted slurs from the gallery, kicked his ball into the rough. Charlie’s laughing about that -- my ball is always in the rough. (Laughter.)
And because golf can be a solitary sport, Charlie didn’t have teammates to lean on. But he did have his lovely wife, Rose. And he had plenty of guts and grit and that trademark cigar. And Charlie won on the Tour twice, both after age 45. But it was never just about the wins. As Charlie says, “I wasn’t just trying to do this for me, I was trying to do it for the world.”
Speaking of trailblazers, to some, Marlo Thomas will always be “That Girl,” who followed her dreams to New York City and kind of was running around Manhattan, having fun, on her own terms. To others, she’s the creative mind behind “Free to Be … You and Me,” whose songs taught a generation of kids that they were strong and beautiful, just the way they were.
As a founder of the “Ms. Foundation,” Marlo helped turn women’s hopes and aspirations into concrete social and economic progress. And she’s helped build the hospital her father founded, St. Jude’s, into one of the premier pediatric hospitals in the world. She recalls her dad saying, “There are two types of people in the world: the givers and the takers. The takers sometimes eat better, but the givers always sleep better.” I love that saying. Marlo Thomas sleeps very well because she’s given so much.
Raised on an Oklahoma reservation by a Cheyenne mother and a Hodulgee Muskogee father, Suzan Shown Harjo grew up to become one of the most effective advocates for Native American rights. And through her work in government and as the head of the National Congress of American Indians and the Morning Star Institute, she has helped preserve a million acres of Indian lands, helped develop laws preserving tribal sovereignty. She has repatriated sacred cultural items to tribes, while expanding museums that celebrate Native life. Because of Suzan, more young Native Americans are growing up with pride in their heritage, and with faith in their future. And she has taught all of us that Native values make America stronger.
On June 21, 1964, three young men – two white, one black – set out to learn more about the burning of a church in Neshoba County, Mississippi: James Earl Chaney, 21 years old; Andrew Goodman, 20 years old; and Michael Henry Schwerner, 24 years old. Young men. And in that Freedom Summer, these three Americans refused to sit on the sidelines. Their brutal murder by a gang of Ku Klux Klan members shook the conscience of our nation. It took 44 days to find their bodies, 41 years to bring the lead perpetrator to justice.
And while they are often remembered for how they died, we honor them today for how they lived -– with the idealism and the courage of youth. James, Andrew, and Michael could not have known the impact they would have on the Civil Rights Movement or on future generations. And here today, inspired by their sacrifice, we continue to fight for the ideals of equality and justice for which they gave their lives. Today we are honored to be joined by James’s daughter Angela, Andrew’s brother David, and Michael’s wife, Rita.
And finally, we give thanks to a person whose love for her family is matched by her devotion to her nation. To most Americans, Ethel Kennedy is known as a wife, mother, and grandma. And in many ways, it’s through these roles that she’s made her mark on history. As Bobby Kennedy’s partner in life, she shared his commitment to justice. After his death, she continued their work through the center she created in his name, celebrating activists and journalists and educating people around the world about threats to human liberty.
On urgent human rights issues of our time -– from juvenile justice to environmental destruction – Ethel has been a force for change in her quiet, flashy -- unflashy, unstoppable way. As her family will tell you, and they basically occupy this half of the room -- (laughter) -- you don’t mess with Ethel. (Laughter.)
She’s gone to extraordinary lengths to build support for the causes close to her heart -– including helping to raise money for ALS research this summer by pouring a bucket of ice water over her head. (Laughter.) As you may know, she nominated me to do it, too. And as you may know, I chose to write a check instead. (Laughter.) I grew up in Hawaii. I don't like pouring ice water on top of my head. (Laughter.) That is probably the only time I’ve said no to Ethel, by the way. (Laughter.)
Ethel is the matriarch of a patriotic family, and with her encouragement, many of her children and grandchildren are carrying on the Kennedy tradition of public service. She is an emblem of enduring faith and enduring hope, even in the face of unimaginable loss and unimaginable grief. And she has touched the lives of countless people around the world with her generosity and her grace. It gives me great pleasure to present this award, which her brother-in-law, President Kennedy, re-established more than 50 years ago.
Ladies and gentlemen, these are the recipients of the 2014 President Medal of Freedom. Let’s give them a big round of applause. (Applause.)
Well, you don't just get applause. You actually get a medal. (Laughter.) So let’s read the citations.
MILITARY AIDE: Robert Battle, receiving on behalf of Alvin Ailey.
A visionary choreographer and dancer, Alvin Ailey transformed American dance through his groundbreaking exploration of the African American experience, weaving traditional songs and stories with ballet, jazz, and modern dance to create something entirely new. He founded and served as artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, renowned worldwide for its soulful, virtuoso performances, including the beloved American masterpiece Revelations. An advocate for the importance of art to the soul of our nation, Alvin Ailey's life and pioneering legacy remind us of our limitless potential for creative self-expression.
MILITARY AIDE: Isabel Allende. A beloved daughter of Chile and the United States, Isabel Allende has transfixed readers worldwide with her extraordinary storytelling. Forced to flee Chile after the overthrow of her cousin, President Salvador Allende, she spent years abroad, filling her books with the stories, rhythms and flavors of home. She is now one of the most widely read and cherished Spanish-language authors in history. She also writes and speaks forcefully about the human rights of women and children, and her foundation supports vulnerable families in Chile and California. With creativity and conviction, Isabel Allende continues to move and delight the world.
MILITARY AIDE: Thomas J. Brokaw. (Applause.) One of our Nation’s most admired journalists, Thomas J. Brokaw has helped Americans better understand the world and each other. From Today, to NBC Nightly News, to Meet the Press, Americans have relied on his authoritative reporting and keen analysis for decades. At moments of great consequence -– from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 -– he was our nation’s eyes and ears at the scene. He has lent his voice to our Nation’s heroes, from The Greatest Generation to the latest generation of service members and their families. Thomas J. Brokaw’s work remains the model of responsible journalism, and his insights continue to enrich our public discourse.
MILITARY AIDE: Angela Lewis, receiving on behalf of her father, James Earl Chaney; David Goodman, receiving on behalf of his brother Andrew Goodman; and Rita Schwerner Bender, receiving on behalf of her husband, Michael Henry Schwerner. (Applause.)
In 1964, three young men sought to right one of the many wrongs of the Jim Crow era by joining hundreds of others to register black voters in Mississippi during “Freedom Summer.” The work was fraught with danger, yet their commitment to justice was so strong that they were willing to risk their lives for it. Their deaths shocked the nation, and their courage has never been forgotten. James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Henry Schwerner still inspire us. Their ideals have been written into the moral fabric of our nation, from the landmark civil rights legislation enacted days after their deaths to our continued pursuit of a more perfect union.
MILITARY AIDE: The Honorable John D. Dingell, Jr. John D. Dingell, Jr.’s tenure surpasses that of any member of Congress in American history. A child of the House, he became its Dean, and his legacy is evident all around us: in cleaner air, safer water, stronger protections for workers, and greater respects for the civil rights of all Americans.
He summoned his grit and determination for legislative battles over health care, from Medicare to the Affordable Care Act. Thanks to his efforts, millions more families across our Nation now have the peace of mind that comes with access to quality, affordable care. A grateful Nation honors John D. Dingell, Jr. for his lifetime of service, from World War II to nearly six decades in Congress.
MILITARY AIDE: Mildred S. Dresselhaus. Mildred S. Dresselhaus has helped uncover the mysteries of our world. One of the most distinguished physicists, materials scientists, and electrical engineers of her generation, her experiments into the conductivity of semi-metals transformed our understanding of those materials, leading to breakthroughs in modern electronics. Her pioneering research on nanotubes has had implications across the economy, from electronics to energy storage to automotive parts. As a leader and mentor, she has inspired countless women to pursue opportunities in physics and engineering. Mildred S. Dresselhaus’s example is a testament to what we can achieve when we summon the courage to follow our curiosity and our dreams.
MILITARY AIDE: Susan Shown Harjo. Suzan Shown Harjo is a poet, writer, curator, and advocate dedicated to the dignity of all people. A Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, and a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, she has fought all her life for the human, civil, and treaty rights of Native peoples. As the head of the National Congress of American Indians, president of the Morning Star Institute, and a founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, her tireless efforts have protected Native culture, returned Native lands, and improved Native lives. With bold resolve, Suzan Shown Harjo pushes us to always seek justice in our time.
MILITARY AIDE: Ethel Kennedy. (Applause.) Ethel Kennedy’s life is a story of perseverance and generosity. A tireless advocate for the causes she holds dear, she founded the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights where she advances her husband’s vision and challenges us to imagine the world as it should be. Whether on gun control, environmental protection, human rights, or public health, she tackles difficult issues with a relentless drive and inspires those around her to do the same. In Ethel Kennedy, we find the strength, resilience, and passion that are at the heart of the American spirit.
MILITARY AIDE: The Honorable Abner Mikva. (Applause.) One of the greatest jurists of his time, Abner Mikva built his career on reverence for the law, commitment to public service, and love for Chicago. As a Congressman, federal judge, and counsel to President Clinton, he helped shape the national debate on some of the most challenging issues of the day, always insisting that government live up to its responsibilities to citizens. He has imparted his sense of civic duty to a new generation, from shaping legal minds as a law professor to challenging young people to give back to their communities through public service. Thanks to Abner Mikva, our laws -– and our nation -– are more fair and equal.
MILITARY AIDE: Wendy Mink, receiving on behalf of her mother, the Honorable Patsy Takemoto Mink. (Applause.)
Patsy Takemoto Mink was ahead of her time. The first woman of color elected to Congress, she entered office determined to do all she could to ensure equal treatment for every American, regardless of race or sex. She co-authored Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, guaranteeing equal educational opportunities for women. She was a forceful advocate for civil rights legislation and for a sensible end to the Vietnam War. She served her beloved Hawaii with integrity and grace all her life. An American trailblazer, Patsy Takemoto Mink helped build a nation that lives up to its promise, and her example challenges us to make progress in our time.
MILITARY AIDE: The Honorable Lucille Roybal Allard receiving on behalf of the Honorable Edward R. Roybal. (Applause.)
Edward R. Roybal lived to serve. He served in the Civilian Conservation Corps, in the Army during World War II, and on the Los Angeles City Council. In 1962, he became the first Hispanic American elected to Congress from California in almost a century, and he served there for thirty years. He stood up for people who needed a champion, including veterans, the mentally ill, the elderly, and people living with HIV/AIDS. He founded the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to ensure that the voices of Hispanic Americans would always be heard. Edward R. Roybal believed that our nation is strongest when we harness the talents of all of our people. That belief, and his legacy, will always live on.
MILITARY AIDE: Charles Sifford. Charles “Charlie” Sifford just wanted to play golf. At a time when the PGA adhered to a “Caucasians only” rule, he risked everything to affect change. In the face of death threats and stinging insults, he persistently challenged the discrimination that plagued his beloved sport while demonstrating his extraordinary skills on the course, winning six National Negro Opens before receiving his PGA Tour card. He went on to win PGA events, was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and received an honorary doctorate from St. Andrews University. Charlie Sifford leveled the fairway for generations of athletes of all races and inspired a community beyond the sport he loves.
MILITARY AIDE: Robert M. Solow. (Applause.) A brilliant economist, Robert M. Solow transformed our fundamental understanding of how to build broad-based prosperity. His ground-breaking research illustrated the importance of technological advancement to long-term growth, upending conventional thinking and earning him a Nobel Prize.
His conclusions emphasized the importance of investing in education, health, and scientific research, and millions of Americans have benefited from the economic progress that he helped to spark. Robert M. Solow’s contributions have molded public opinion and policy, and he continues to engage with the most pressing economic questions of the day with his incisive commentary on income inequality and economic mobility.
MILITARY AIDE: Meryl Streep. (Applause.) One of our nation’s greatest actors, Meryl Streep has an unmatched ability to bring a character to life. Her performances have earned her the most Academy Award nominations of any actor in history and have given her audiences the chance to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
Whether portraying a famous chef, a fashion editor, a Holocaust survivor, or a prime minister, she conveys her characters’ stories with empathy and dignity. Off screen, she brings that same humanity to her advocacy for women, education, and the arts. With depth, joy, and discipline, Meryl Streep invites us to explore the full range of the human experience, one story at a time.
MILITARY AIDE: Marlo Thomas. (Applause.) For over half a century, Marlo Thomas has been challenging conventions and defying expectations. She broke barriers in television with her iconic role in That Girl, and lifted the voices of women as co-founder of the Ms. Foundation for Women. Through stories and songs, she reminds children that we are all “Free to be You and Me,” and her work with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has helped it become one of the top children’s cancer hospitals in the nation. Through her words, deeds, and characters, Marlo Thomas has taught us to be true to ourselves and to lead our lives with confidence and compassion.
MILITARY AIDE: Stevie Wonder. (Applause.) One of the world’s most gifted singer-songwriters, Stevland Morris, known to the world as Stevie Wonder, crafts songs about joy and loss, love and loneliness – with a musical style entirely his own. He is celebrated for his exuberant creativity, his virtuosity on multiple instruments, and his mastery of a wide range of genres. The results have gained him millions of fans and 25 Grammy awards. Beyond his music, Stevie Wonder has impacted the world through his philanthropy and advocacy, especially his championing of people with disabilities. Creating music in the key of life, Stevie Wonder has brought greater harmony to our nation.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, what an extraordinary group. Let’s give them all a big round of applause one more time. (Applause.)
We thank all of them for the gifts they’ve given to us, the incredible performances, the incredible innovation, the incredible ideas, the incredible expressions of the human spirit. And not only have they made the world better, but by following their example, they make us a little bit better every single day.
We are truly grateful to them. And on behalf of Michelle and myself, please enjoy the reception. And God bless you all. Thank you. (Applause.)
END 3:07 P.M. EST