Obama awards freedom medals

By Julie Mianecki: Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday to former President George H.W. Bush and 14 others, including poet Maya Angelou, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, investor Warren Buffett and basketball legend Bill Russell.

The medal is the highest U.S. honor a civilian can receive and is awarded to individuals who have made significant contributions “to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

“This is one of the things I most look forward to every year,” Obama said, calling the honorees “the best of who we are and who we aspire to be.”

Obama reviewed the life and career of President Bush, describing his time as a Navy pilot, U.N. ambassador, U.S. envoy to China, director of the CIA and as vice-president under President Reagan.

Obama also praised Bush for achievements during his 1989-93 presidency, including reducing nuclear weapons, driving Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait and overseeing the aftermath of the Cold War’s end. The president commended Bush for his post-presidency work with disaster relief.

“His life is a testament that public service is a noble calling,” Obama said. “His humility and his decency reflects the very best of the American spirit. Those of you who know him — this is a gentleman.”

Poet Maya Angelou was the one of several artists among the honorees. Obama praised her for rising above an abusive childhood to inspire others with her words, saying her voice has “spoken to millions, including my mother, which is why my sister is named Maya.”

He quoted Angelou, saying, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again,” and bent down to kiss her cheek as he presented her with the medal.

Obama joked that Ma, a world-renowned cellist who has been performing in concert since age 5, was a “late bloomer,” and described his award-winning career, which includes 15 Grammy Awards and more than 75 albums.

“There are very few people you’ll meet that possess the joy that Yo-Yo Ma does,” Obama said.

American investor Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, received the medal for his philanthropic efforts.

Obama lauded Buffett’s generosity, saying, “a philanthropist is a lover of humanity and there’s no word that fits Warren better.

“He’s so thrifty I had to give him a White House tie the last time he came to visit,” Obama said. “His was looking a little shredded.”

Politicians Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and U.S Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., were honored, although Merkel wasn’t present to receive her medal.

Lewis was a leader during the civil rights movement, Obama said, who organized student sit-ins and was on the first Freedom Ride to fight segregation. The congressman won his first term in 1986.

Two former professional athletes — Russell and baseball legend Stan Musial — were among the medal recipients.

Obama praised Russell, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., for his courage and strength as a member of the Boston Celtics, where he regularly endured racism from fans.

The president described how Russell refused to play after a restaurant declined to serve the team because of its black members, and called him “someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men.”

Three-time World Series winner Stan “The Man” Musial was honored for his career with the St. Louis Cardinals and his sense of integrity. Obama said he is “a gentleman you’d want your kids to emulate.”

“He asked for a pay cut when he didn’t perform up to his own expectations,” Obama said. “You can imagine that happening today.”

Other honorees were: Sylvia Mendez, a civil rights activist; John H. Adams, co-founder of the National Resources Defense Council; Jasper Johns, an American artist; Gerda Weissmann Klein, a Holocaust survivor, author and activist; Jean Kennedy Smith, former ambassador to Ireland and founder of VSA, an organization that promotes the artistic talents of young people with disabilities; John J. Sweeney, former president of the AFL-CIO; and Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist who was murdered while on a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan, whose award was accepted by his wife.