ABC News’ Sarah Tobianski reports: President Obama put briefly on hold his quest for health care reform to honor sixteen “agents of change” with the Medal of Freedom today, the country’s highest civilian award.
“At a moment when cynicism and doubt too often prevail; when our obligations to one another are too often forgotten; when the road ahead can seem too long or hard to tread, these extraordinary men and women, these agents of change, remind us that excellence is not beyond our abilities, that hope lies around the corner, and that justice can still be won in the forgotten corners of this world,” President Obama said.
The Medal of Freedom was created by an Executive Order signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, after receiving overwhelming support in public polling.
President Kennedy’s brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D – Mass.), was awarded the medal today but couldn’t accept it in person out of respect of the recent passing of his sister, Eunice Kennedy-Shriver. The award was accepted by his daughter, Kara Kennedy, who had tears in her eyes after accepting the award.
President Obama gave special mention to his friend and political ally by saying the ailing Senator’s life has made a difference to everyone.
The President said Kennedy’s work has made a difference for people from every walk of life.
“For that soldier fighting for freedom, that refugee looking for a way home, that senior searching for dignity, that worker striving for opportunity, that student aspiring to college, that family reaching for the American dream,” President Obama said.
President Obama also placed the medal around the necks of Stephen Hawking – “His work in theoretical physics, which I will not attempt to explain further here…” – and Sandra Day O’Connor – who upon graduation, could only find work as a legal secretary.
“I cannot know how she would have fared as a legal secretary, but she made a mighty fine justice of the United States Supreme Court,” President Obama said.
The President also paid special tribute to the barriers broken down by minority communities by bestowing the medal to Sidney Poitier, Chita Rivera, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow and Reverend Joseph Lowery, who lead the prayer at President Obama’s inauguration.
President Obama couldn’t pass up the chance to poke fun at Rivera’s full name.
“Delores Concita Figueroa del Rivero knows the adversity that comes with a difficult name,” the President said. “I can relate.”
The most controversial of the bunch was Mary Robinson, the first woman elected president of Ireland. Despite opposition from the Jewish community about her reported animus toward Israel, the White House felt she deserved her award.
“Today, as an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored, Mary Robinson has not only shone a light on human suffering, but illuminated a better future for our world,” President Obama said.
Two awards – to gay rights activist Harvey Milk and to football legend and former Republican U.S. Congressman Jack Kemp – were awarded posthumously.
In attendance were friends and family members of the recipients, White House staff, and First Lady Michelle Obama, who – just five hours after her last event – wore a different outfit.
The Medal of Freedom ranks second to only the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. The award, which can also be awarded with distinction, is “given only after careful thought, always sparingly so as not to debase its currency,” according to White House records. At the end of the Bush administration, 300 recipients have been awarded the honor. The President makes his selections based on recommendations of staff and nominations sent in.
Each recipient receives a certificate signed by the president, a walnut presentation case, and the medal itself — a five-pointed white star set on a red pentagon.