WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The awards ceremony for the 2010 Medal of Freedom recipients on Feb. 15, was a stately affair held in the ornate and elegant East Room of the White House.
Before an audience of nearly 200, President Barack Obama presented medals to 15 individuals who he said “reveal the best of who we are and who we aspire to be.”
However, the ceremony, which recognized exceptional contributions from those in the arts, humanitarianism and philanthropy as well as civil rights and sport, was not without humor.
“When we award this medal to a Congressman John Lewis, it says that we aspire to be a more just, more equal, more perfect union,” said Obama. “When we award it to a Jasper Johns, it says we value the original and the imaginative. When we award it to a Warren Buffett, it says we’d all like to be so humble and wise -- and maybe make a little money along the way. And when we award it to former President George H.W. Bush, it says we celebrate an extraordinary life of service and of sacrifice.”
Obama also called cellist Yo-Yo Ma a “late bloomer” referring to his playing the cello at 5 and joked about former NBA player and coach Bill Russell’s height, saying it always makes the president feel small.
However, the president made it clear why the 15 were selected for the medal, the highest civilian award that the nation can bestow.
He spoke of civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez’ lifelong quest for equality and how Holocaust survivor Gerda Klein “taught the world that it is often in our most hopeless moments that we discover the extent of our strength and the depth of our love.” Of Lewis, the president remarked that he, “faced down death so that all of us could share equally in the joys of life. It’s why all these years later, he is known as the Conscience of the United States Congress, still speaking his mind on issues of justice and equality. And generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind -- an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”
Lewis received a standing ovation. However, one of the longest and most enthusiastic ovations of the afternoon came for President George H. W. Bush, whose life Obama called a “a testament that public service is a noble calling.”
The other recipients of the 2010 Medal of Freedom are: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the first woman and first East German to serve as chancellor of a unified Germany; John H. Adams, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council; Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist who worked in Afghanistan for 30 years and was murdered by the Taliban returning from a humanitarian mission;; Stan Musial, a baseball legend and Hall of Fame first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals; Jean Kennedy Smith, founder an organization that promotes the artistic talents of those with disabilities and a former U. S. Ambassador to Ireland; John J. Sweeney, current president emeritus of the AFL-CIO. Merkel was unable to attend, and Little’s wife accepted his award.