Washington • President Barack Obama on Monday bestowed America's highest civilian honor on trailblazers in the arts, sports and politics, along with a couple of entertainers who are among his personal favorites.
The 18 notables who gathered in the White House East Room to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom left even the president himself in awe. Obama said the ceremony is one of his favorite events because it celebrates "people who have made America stronger and wiser and more humane and more beautiful."
He revealed the first record he ever bought was by honoree Stevie Wonder and confessed a crush on Meryl Streep, gushing about her ability to promote empathy on and off the screen through charitable works.
"Her husband knows I love her. Michelle knows I love her. There's nothing either of them can do about it," the president joked.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is reserved for individuals who have made "meritorious contributions" to U.S. security, world peace or cultural endeavors. Obama said he took great pleasure in being able to present the award to Ethel Kennedy, since it was her brother-in-law the former president who expanded and elevated the honor more than a half century ago. Obama noted that over the summer, Ethel Kennedy challenged him to douse himself in water to support ALS research. "I don't like pouring ice water on top of my head. That is probably the only time I've ever said no to Ethel, by the way," Obama said to laughter.
Others receiving the award included NBC journalist Tom Brokaw, author Isabel Allende, American Indian activist Suzan Harjo, actress Marlo Thomas, economist Robert Solow, former Rep. Abner Mikva of Illinois, physicist Mildred Dresselhaus and golfer Charlie Sifford. Composer Stephen Sondheim was scheduled to receive the award, but Obama said he couldn't make it and will be included in next year's class of honorees.
The loudest applause came when Obama gave posthumous medals to family members of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were killed in 1964 as they participated in a historic voter registration drive in Mississippi.
Other posthumous awards were for choreographer Alvin Ailey and Reps. Patsy Mink of Hawaii and Edward Roybal of California, founder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
There also was a sustained cheer for Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell, who is retiring at the end of this year after the serving the longest tenure in congressional history, after he mustered the strength to stand and receive his medal.
"His life reminds us that change takes time," Obama said, noting that Dingell was a tireless fighter for health care reform who stood at his side when he signed the Affordable Care Act into law. "It takes courage and persistence, but if we push hard enough and long enough, change is possible."