An emotional President Clinton praised the “keen intellect and loving heart” of sometime political rival the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the leadership of the iconoclastic general who disagreed with his strategy during the Kosovo air war, as he bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on 15 people today.
Clinton’s voice grew thin as he listed the accomplishments of Americans as diverse as Jackson, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman retired Adm. William Crowe and former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern.
“From the founding of our nation it has been the duty of each generation to achieve freedom all over again, to expand it, to deepen its meaning, to widen the circle of those who are included as full citizens,” Clinton said at a packed ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
“Today we honor 15 men and women who have done exactly that,” Clinton said. “They have helped America to achieve freedom.”
Jackson is considered both a Clinton ally and a fly in the presidential ointment. The civil rights leader is a frequent sight at the White House, even though he flirted briefly with the idea of challenging Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Jackson prayed with the Clinton family after the president disclosed his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky, but defied Clinton advisers last year by going to Yugoslavia to retrieve three American soldiers held as prisoners.
Friendly Oratory Rivals An orator at least as gifted as Clinton, Jackson sometimes outshines the president. Clinton jokingly acknowledged the rhetorical rivalry today.
“You are now about to witness one of the best things about this ceremony,” Clinton said. “For a chance, I don’t have to follow Jesse Jackson.”
After the ceremony, Jackson praised the Clinton administration for promoting “the most inclusive America,” but did not paper over his differences with the White House.
“Those of us who would dare be change agents, who lead by molding opinion and not following opinion polls, always rub the edges of our society,” Jackson said.
NATO Commander Honored Clark commanded NATO during the 78-day air war against Yugoslav forces last year that forced the retreat from Kosovo. During the war Clark made little secret of his belief that the alliance must actively consider a ground invasion, and he chafed at the graduated air campaign prosecuted by the Clinton administration.
Clark was replaced early, but professed no bitterness. Clinton said last year that the selection of another general for the job had nothing to do with Clark’s conduct during the war.
Today, Clinton noted many experts thought the Kosovo operation was “mission impossible.”
“Instead, thanks to Gen. Clark, we now can declare it mission accomplished,” Clinton said.
Pioneers and Freedom Fighters Lauded Among those honored was longtime Detroit resident Mildred “Millie” Jeffrey, who was the director of the first United Auto Workers women’s department. She also walked in several civil rights marches with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Former UAW President Doug Fraser met Jeffrey when they both were working for then-UAW President Walter Reuther in the 1950s.
“Millie’s always been at the forefront on any social issue with dimensions: civil rights, women’s rights, environmental issues. … Millie was a pioneer. She’s a woman of considerable ability. She’s always been in the fight for equality and social justice,” Fraser said Monday.
The honorees, including a pioneering AIDS researcher, a crusading Hispanic legal activist and others known mostly for work among the poor or disadvantaged, “have helped us to secure the blessing of liberty, by acts of bravery, conscience and creativity,” Clinton said.
Clinton’s Last Group Award The medal, the nation’s highest civilian award, was established by President Truman as a wartime honor. President Kennedy reintroduced it as way to honor civilian service.
Only the president may award the medal. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said today’s awards are the last Clinton will do as a group, although he may award others individually if he chooses. Typically, the ceremony is annual.
The medal may be awarded to citizens of other nations and may be awarded posthumously, as was this year’s medal for Rhode Island Republican Sen. John Chafee, who died last year.