It took a little coaxing from President Barack Obama for Bob Dylan to stand up Tuesday and retrieve his Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. "Come on, Bob," Obama prompted the musical icon, who was wearing shades and a stoic expression in a ceremony at the White House.
Dylan, former astronaut John Glenn (the first American in space), best-selling novelist Toni Morrison, and 10 others received the medal from Obama in the mansion's ornate East Room, with top officials like Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in attendance.
"This is the highest civilian honor this country can bestow, which is ironic, because nobody sets out to win it," Obama said in the packed hall. "No one ever picks up a guitar, or fights a disease, or starts a movement, thinking, "You know what, if I keep this up, in 2012, I could get a medal in the White House from a guy named Barack Obama.'"
The president gushed about each of the honorees, not least about Dylan.
"Today, everybody from Bruce Springsteen to U2 owes Bob a debt of gratitude. There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music. All these years later, he's still chasing that sound, still searching for a little bit of truth. And I have to say that I am a really big fan," he said.
The other honorees included former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, former Justice Department official John Doar, a pivotal civil rights movement figure; William Foege, a doctor and epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox in the 1970s; the late Gordon Hirabayashi, who openly denounced the World War II-era internment of Japanese-Americans; farm worker union pioneer Dolores Huerta; the late Jan Karski, who fought the Nazis as a member of the Polish Underground and warned the world about the Holocaust; Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low, who died in 1927; Israeli President Shimon Peres, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and Pat Summitt, college basketball's winningest coach and a crusader against Alzheimer's.
"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," Obama said. "Together, the honorees on this stage, and the ones who couldn't be here, have moved us with their words; they have inspired us with their actions. They've enriched our lives and they've changed our lives for the better," he added.
Peres was absent, but Obama said the Israeli leader would get his award at an upcoming dinner in his honor at the White House.
Dylan, 71, was the last to receive his award, a vestige of his legal surname, "Zimmerman." He seemed lost in thought when his name was called, leading Obama to prompt him.
Before the ceremony, the Marine Band's pianist played a medley of some of Dylan's songs — "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and the political "The Times They Are a-Changin.'"
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