ABC News' Mary K. Bruce reports:
At tonight’s State Dinner in the Rose Garden, President Obama presented German Chancellor Angela Merkel with the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award the president may bestow.
In his comments before presenting the award, Obama described Merkel as a symbol of freedom, given her childhood in communist East Germany.
“She remembers when the Wall went up and how everyone in her church was crying. … Asked to spy for the secret police, she refused. And the night the Wall came down, she crossed over, like so many others, and finally experienced what she calls the ‘incredible gift of freedom,’” Obama said.
“Tonight, we honor Angela Merkel not for being denied her freedom, or even for attaining her freedom, but for what she achieved when she gained her freedom,” the president said.
Merkel is the first East German, and the first woman, German Chancellor.
Merkel said that as a little girl growing up in a part of Germany without freedom, imagining that she would one day “stand in the Rose Garden of the White House and receive the Medal of Freedom from an American president, that was certainly beyond even my wildest dreams.”
The Medal of Freedom is usually an honor bestowed upon Americans, although, as the president pointed out, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl are past recipients.
After awarding the Medal of Freedom, Obama appeared to almost forget to give his toast. He reached down to the head table — where the first lady was seated in a sequined, cream-colored, sleeveless gown by designer Naeem Khan -– and grabbed his glass of champagne.
“I’ve got to do the toast,” he said to laughter from the audience.
The al fresco dinner in the Rose Garden just outside the West Wing and Oval Office was a rare venue for such an occasion. The décor was intended to have a “clean austere feel” and embraced the German Bauhaus school of design, according to the White House.
The Rose Garden lawn was carpeted in stripes of white and grey and tables were adorned with white and silver linens. Floral arrangement of yellow calla lilies, green viburnum and ruffled asplenium leaves completed the look.
The evening concluded with musical performances by the National Symphony Orchestra and singer-songwriter James Taylor.
While pool cameras were ushered out before Taylor performed, earlier in the evening he said that he was requested to sing “You’ve Got a Friend."