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Obama Awards Presidential Medal of Freedom

Obama Awards Presidential Medal of Freedom


Hello, everybody! (Applause.) Thank you. Everybody
please have a seat. Everybody have a seat. Well, welcome to the White House, everybody.
A bunch of people were saying I was pretty busy today — which is true. (Applause.) But
this is a fun kind of busy right here. Today, we celebrate some extraordinary people — innovators,
artists, and leaders — who contribute to America’s strength as a nation. And we offer
them our highest civilian honor — the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Applause.) Let me tell you just a little bit about them
— although I suspect people here already know their stories. Growing up in West Virginia,
Katherine Johnson counted everything. She counted steps. She counted dishes. She counted
the distance to the church. By 10 years old, she was in high school. By 18, she had graduated
from college with degrees in math and French. As an African-American woman, job options
were limited — but she was eventually hired as one of several female mathematicians for
the agency that would become NASA. Katherine calculated the flight path for America’s
first mission in space, and the path that put Neil Armstrong on the moon. She was even
asked to double-check the computer’s math on John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth.
(Laughter.) So if you think your job is pressure-packed — (laughter) — hers meant that forgetting
to carry the one might send somebody floating off into the Solar System. (Laughter.) In
her 33 years at NASA, Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender,
showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science, and reach for
the stars. In the early 1960s, a lawyer named Bill Ruckelshaus
drove through Indiana in a truck, taking samples from streams “choked with dead fish.”
He called it “a very good time.” (Laughter.) I think we have different definitions of “a
very good time.” But it was all part of protecting Americans from big polluters. And
in 1970, when Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, he made Bill, a fellow
Republican, its first director. Under Bill’s leadership, the EPA developed new clean air
standards, banned the harmful pesticide DDT. Most importantly, Bill set a powerful precedent
that protecting our environment is something we must come together and do as a country. He became known as “Mr. Clean” — and
lived up to that nickname when he resigned from the Nixon administration rather than
derail the Watergate investigation. He’s never truly retired — in recent years he’s
led the fight to protect Puget Sounds, and he’s urged his fellow Republicans to join
him in combating climate change. So he spent his life putting country before party or politics.
He reminds us how noble public service can be. And our air and water is cleaner and our
lives are brighter because of him. Back in 1966, plans were laid for a highway
straight through some of Baltimore’s most diverse neighborhoods. The new road seemed
like a go. It was about to happen — that is, until it ran into a young social worker
— and let’s just say you don’t want to get on the wrong side of Barbara Mikulski.
(Laughter.) She stopped that highway and jumpstarted one of the finest public service careers we’ve
ever seen. And for decades, Barbara has been a lion — lioness — on Capitol Hill, fighting
for working families, fighting for high-tech, high-paying jobs, fighting for the prospects
of America’s women and girls. I couldn’t have been prouder to have her
by my side as I signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — first law that I
signed. (Applause.) Barbara’s legacy reflects her roots — a mom who offered grocery store
credit to steelworkers on strike; a dad who greeted every customer with a friendly “Can
I help you?” We are all lucky that’s a question Barbara’s been asking — and answering
— longer than any female lawmaker in our history. (Applause.) There are people in our country’s history
who don’t look left or right — they just look straight ahead. Shirley Chisholm was
one of those people. Driven by a profound commitment to justice, she became the first
African-American congresswoman — the first African-American woman from a major political
party — to run for President. When Shirley was assigned to the House Agricultural Committee
— despite the fact that her district was from New York City — (laughter) — she said,
“Apparently all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grew there.”
(Laughter.) But she made the most of her new role, helping to create the supplemental nutrition
program that feeds poor mothers and their children. Shirley Chisholm’s example transcends
her life. And when asked how she’d like to be remembered, she had an answer: “I’d
like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts.” And I’m proud to say it: Shirley
Chisholm had guts. “At its best,” Lee Hamilton once said,
“representative democracy gives us a system where all of us have a voice in the process
and a stake in the product.” In his 34 years in Congress, Lee Hamilton was a faithful servant
to that ideal, representing his district, his beloved Indiana, and his country with
integrity and honor. As head of the House Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committees,
he helped guide us through the Cold War and into a new era of American leadership, a man
widely admired on both sides of the aisle for his honesty, his wisdom, and consistent
commitment to bipartisanship. From serving as vice chair of the 9/11 Commission to making
Congress more effective, Lee remains a tireless public servant and a trusted advisor and friend
to many — and I am proud to count myself among them. We also celebrate those who have stirred our
souls and lifted our spirits as icons of the stage, screen and song. Born in Brooklyn to
a middle-class Jewish family — I didn’t know you were Jewish, Barbra — (laughter)
— Barbra Streisand attended her first Broadway show at age 14 and remembers thinking, “I
could go up on that stage and play any role without any trouble at all.” That’s what’s
called chutzpah. (Laughter.) And it helps when you’ve got amazing talent, all of which
made her a global sensation — one whose voice has been described as “liquid diamonds,”
and whose fans have considered bronzing her used coffee cups. (Laughter.) She has sold
more albums in America than any woman in history. She has collected just about every honor and
award that there is. I couldn’t believe she hadn’t gotten this one. (Laughter.)
Off the stage, she has been a passionate advocate for issues like heart disease and women’s
equality. I’m getting all “verklempt” just thinking about it. (Laughter.) In an interview, violinist Itzhak Perlman
was once asked what sound he loves, and his eyes lit up and he replied, “The sound of
onions sizzling in a pan.” (Laughter.) This is a man of large appetites who knows how
to live. He also happens to be a pretty good musician, and persevered through childhood
polio to become not only a virtuoso but also a powerful advocate for people with disabilities.
He has played with every major orchestra in the world, conducted many of them, taught
generations of young musicians. He has won Grammys. He has won Emmys. He’s performed
with all the greats — Leonard Bernstein. Yo-Yo Ma. Telly from Sesame Street. (Laughter.)
But what truly sets him apart and what makes him perhaps the most beloved violinist of
our time is that he approaches music the way he approaches everything in life — with passion
and with joy. He lays bare the soul of a piece, making us feel each note, and giving us a
glimpse of something bigger than ourselves. And by doing so, he makes the world a little
more beautiful. I’m proud to call the next honoree a friend,
as well. The truth is, a lot of people say that about James Taylor. That’s what happens
when you spend four decades telling people, “Just call out my name, and I’ll come
running.” (Laughter.) But that’s the thing about James — you always feels like he’s
singing only to you. As a fan of his once said, James can “turn an arena into a living
room.” It’s why he became one of the driving forces of the singer-songwriter movement.
And his honesty and candor about overcoming substance abuse has inspired not only his
music, but people all around the world. So come Fire or Rain; come Carolina, Mexico,
or a Country Road — James Taylor is there to comfort us, to help us look within, and
to urge us all to Shower the People we love with love. On a Miami night in 1975, a young woman named
Gloria walked into a wedding reception and saw a handsome young man named Emilio leading
his band. He was playing “Do the Hustle” — on an accordion. (Laughter.) I’m quoting
her now — she said she found this “sexy and brave.” (Laughter.) I mean, the brave
part I understand. (Laughter.) But it turns out he had a few other things up his sleeve.
He brought her up to sing a few songs that night, invited her to join his band. A few
months later, Emilio asked Gloria for a birthday kiss. It was not her birthday — it wasn’t
his birthday. But he got the kiss anyway. And Emilio and Gloria Estefan have been partners
— on and off-stage — ever since. Some worried they were “too American for
Latins and too Latin for Americans.” Turns out everybody just wanted to dance and do
the conga. And together, their fusion sound has sold more than 100 million records. And
as proud Cuban-Americans, they’ve promoted their cultural heritage and inspired fans
all over the world. “An awful lot of people have gone…to musicals
to forget their troubles…” — just like they were dancing to Estefan’s music. Stephen
Sondheim I think is somebody who is not interested in that. As a composer and a lyricist, and
a genre unto himself, Sondheim challenges his audiences. His greatest hits aren’t
tunes you can hum; they’re reflections on roads we didn’t take, and wishes gone wrong,
relationships so frayed and fractured there’s nothing left to do but send in the clowns.
Yet Stephen’s music is so beautiful, his lyrics so precise, that even as he exposes
the imperfections of everyday life, he transcends them. We transcend them. Put simply, Stephen
reinvented the American musical. He’s loomed large over more than six decades in the theater.
And with revivals from Broadway to the big screen, he is still here, pulling us up short,
and giving us support for “being alive.” Here’s how Steven Spielberg once explained
his creative process. “Once a month, the sky falls on my head. I come to, and I see
another movie I want to make.” (Laughter.) This sounds painful for Steven, but it has
worked out pretty well for the rest of us. In his career, Steven has introduced us to
extraterrestrials, rogue archeologists, killer sharks. He’s taken us to Neverland, Jurassic
Park, but also the beaches of Normandy, and Nazi concentration camps. Despite redefining
the word “prolific,” a Spielberg movie is still a Spielberg movie. (Phone rings.)
Somebody is calling to see if they can book him for a deal right now. (Laughter.) They
want to make pitch — “so there’s this really good-looking President and — (laughter). A Spielberg movie, marked by boundless imagination,
worlds rendered in extraordinary detail, characters whose struggle to seize control of their destinies
— all of that reminds us so powerfully of our own lives. And Steven’s films are marked
most importantly by a faith in our common humanity — the same faith in humanity that
led him to create the Shoah Foundation, and lend a voice to survivors of genocide around
the world. His stories have shaped America’s story, and his values have shaped our world. So we celebrate artists, public servants — and
two legends from America’s pastime. What can be said about Lawrence “Yogi” Berra
that he couldn’t say better himself? (Laughter.) The son of an Italian bricklayer, they called
him “Yogi” because he sat like one while waiting to bat. And he was born to play baseball. But he loved
his country, and at 18, he left St. Louis for the Navy, and ultimately found himself
on Omaha Beach. After he returned, Yogi embarked on a career that would make him one of the
greatest catchers of all time. With the Yankees, he played in 14 World Series in 18 years,
won 10 World Series rings, and three MVP awards. He had, as one biographer put it, “the winningest
career in the history of American sports.” Nobody has won more than this guy. And he
coached the game with as much heart as he played it. He lived his life with pride and
humility, and an original, open mind. One thing we know for sure, “If you can’t
imitate him, don’t copy him.” (Laughter.) It took everybody a while. (Laughter.) We don’t have time to list all of Willie
Mays’s statistics — 660 home runs, .302 lifetime batting average. The list goes on
and on. I won’t describe that miracle grab at the Polo Grounds, either — because Willie
says that wasn’t even his best catch. I will say this: We have never seen an all-around,
five-tool player quite like Willie before — and we haven’t seen one since. He could
throw and he could field, hit for contact and for power. And, of course, he was so fast,
he could barely keep a hat on his head. On top of that, Willie also served our country,
and his quiet example while excelling on one of America’s biggest stages helped carry
forward the banner of civil rights. A few years ago, Willie rode with me on Air Force
One. I told him then what I’ll tell all of you now — it’s because of giants like
Willie that someone like me could even think about running for President. (Applause.) Finally, we celebrate those who have challenged
us to live up to our values. Billy Frank Jr. liked to say, “I wasn’t a policy guy.
I was a getting-arrested guy.” And that’s true. Billy was arrested more than 50 times
in his fight to protect tribal fishing rights and save the salmon that had fed his family
for generations. He was spat on, shot at, chased and clubbed and cast as an outlaw.
But Billy kept fighting. Because he knew he was right. And in 1974, a federal judge agreed,
honoring the promises made to Northwest tribes more than a century before. Billy went on
to become a national voice for Indian Country and a warrior for the natural world. “I
don’t believe in magic,” Billy once said. “I believe in the sun and the stars, the
water, the hawks flying, the rivers running, the wind talking.” They tell us how healthy
we are, he said, “because we and they are the same.” Twenty-three years ago, Bonnie Carroll’s
world was turned upside down. Her husband, Tom, a brigadier general in the Army, was
killed in a plane crash, along with seven other soldiers. Heartbroken, Bonnie began
healing the only way that she knew how — by helping others. She founded the Tragedy Assistance
Program for Survivors, creating a national community to support the families of our fallen
servicemembers. And each year, TAPS holds seminars and workshops for military families
across the country. Through their Good Grief camps, they bring together children of our
fallen to learn how to cope with loss, to honor the legacy of their heroes — and to
try and have some fun, as well. As one Gold Star child who lost her father in Iraq said,
“[Because of TAPS], I know someone is by my side.” On a Saturday night in March of 1942, Minoru
Yasui left his law office to walk around Portland, Oregon. It was a seemingly ordinary act that
defied the discriminatory military curfew imposed on Japanese Americans during World
War II. Min took his case to the Supreme Court and lost, a decision he fought for the rest
of his life. Yet despite what Japanese Americans endured — suspicion, hostility, forced removal,
internment — Min never stopped believing in the promise of his country. He never stopped
fighting for equality and justice for all. “We believe in the greatness and in the
great ideals of this country,” he once said. “We think that there is a future for all
humanity in the United States of America.” Today, Min’s legacy has never been more
important. It is a call to our national conscience; a reminder of our enduring obligation to be
“the land of the free and the home of the brave” — an America worthy of his sacrifice. So, ladies and gentlemen, these are the recipients
of the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Let’s give them a big round of applause.
(Applause.) And now — have a seat. We’re not done.
They’ve got to get some hardware here. (Laughter.) To my military aide, let’s read the citations. MILITARY AIDE: Presidential Medal of Freedom
citations. Larry Berra, receiving on behalf of Lawrence
Peter Berra. One of our nation’s most beloved and quotable sports heroes, Lawrence Peter
“Yogi” Berra was a world-class baseball player and a great spirit. He left home to
join the Navy, fought on D-Day, and came home with a Purple Heart. As a three-time MVP Major
League catcher, he won 10 World Series Championships. As the manager of the New York Yankees, he
guided his team and the sport he loved with a wisdom that lives in our national consciousness,
and taught us all that we can observe a lot just by watching. (Applause.) Bonnie Carroll. (Applause.) After her husband
died in an Army plane crash, Bonnie Carroll channeled her own grief into service. As the
founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, she has devoted her life to
building a network to support families who, like hers, made the ultimate sacrifice for
our freedom. Bonnie has comforted the hearts and lifted the lives of thousands of families
across the country. Her strength and generosity are a testament to the enduring human spirit.
(Applause.) Andre Dubois, receiving on behalf of the honorable
Shirley Chisholm. (Applause.) As the first African-American Congresswoman and the first
African-American woman to seek a major party nomination for President, Shirley Chisholm
carried the torch of progress into a new era of American politics. From classrooms in New
York City to committee rooms in Congress, she gave voice to the plight of marginalized
communities, built coalitions to expand social justice, and denounced sexism and racism.
By refusing to stand on the sidelines, never letting others define her limits, and daring
to be herself, Shirley Chisholm embodied the American spirit. Emilio Estefan, Jr. (Applause.) Gloria Estefan.
(Applause.) A native of Havana, Cuba, Emilio Estefan, Jr. rose to become a musician, producer,
and businessman. Bringing his distinctive Latin sound to North America’s pop music
audiences, he proved that the power of music transcends cultural, social, and economic
boundaries. By using song to celebrate and elevate the accomplishments of Latin Americans,
Emilio Estefan has blended cultures and created a new, wholly American sound. (Applause.) With her infectious rhythm and iconic vocals,
Gloria Estefan is a music powerhouse who has sold millions of records across the globe.
Transporting the spirit of Havana to Miami and beyond, her music broke down barriers
and established Latin music in the American mainstream. A humanitarian and a devoted family
leader, Gloria Estefan embodies the story of America, and of a pioneer who will forever
symbolize the potential of all those who passionately develop their talents and build their dreams.
(Applause.) Peggen Frank, receiving on behalf of Billy
Frank, Jr. (Applause.) Billy Frank, Jr. devoted his life to protecting the rights of Native
Americans and to conserving our planet. For over 50 years, he tirelessly and fearlessly
fought for the preservation of traditional ways of life and the protection of treaty
fishing rights. He was widely renowned as an advocate for the physical and cultural
survival of Native Americans. His legacy reminds us that the pursuit of equality and justice
is the work of every generation. (Applause.) The Honorable Lee H. Hamilton. (Applause.)
A leading voice on foreign policy and national security, Lee H. Hamilton has played a pivotal
role in developing solutions to some of the most complex challenges of our time. His leadership
in Congress reflected his profound commitment to preserving the safety and integrity of
our nation, and his role in promoting civic engagement has made an impact that will endure
for generations to come. Lee H. Hamilton has helped steer the course of American history
in a spirit of bipartisanship, and he continues to strengthen the homeland and promote diplomacy.
(Applause.) Katherine G. Johnson. (Applause.) With her
razor-sharp mathematical mind, Katherine G. Johnson helped broaden the scope of space
travel, charting new frontiers for humanity’s exploration of space, and creating new possibilities
for all humankind. From sending the first American to space to the first moon landing,
she played a critical role in many of NASA’s most important milestones. Katherine G. Johnson
refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the
boundaries of humanity’s reach. (Applause.) Willie Howard Mays, Jr. (Applause.) Born in
segregated Alabama, Willie Howard Mays, Jr. grew up to become one of the greatest baseball
players of all time. With his unmatched power and agility, he stepped into the history books
as a two-time MVP with 660 career home runs and 24 all-star appearances. Along the way,
the “Say Hey Kid” captured hearts across America. His life story reminds us of the
power of hard work and determination — and his legacy continues to inspire generations
of Americans. (Applause.) The Honorable Barbara A. Mikulski. (Applause.)
For decades, Barbara A. Mikulski has served the people of Maryland and our nation with
conviction, heart, and a spirit of selflessness. As a social worker, community organizer, city
councilor, and the longest-serving woman in Congress, she has been a tireless advocate
for families, women, children, and seniors. In the Senate, Barbara A. Mikulski has wielded
her power to fight for equality and fairness for the most vulnerable members of our society.
Her example helped pave the way for other women in elected office, and her legacy will
endure in all those who climb the ladder of opportunity she fought to build. (Applause.) Itzhak Perlman. (Applause.) A teacher, conductor,
and one of the greatest violinists of our time, Itzhak Perlman was — brought joy to
millions, inspired countless new artists, and earned adoration from global audiences.
Born in Israel, he has devoted his life to sharing his love of music. From Tel Aviv to
Shanghai, from London to Moscow, he has served as one of the world’s most cherished cultural
ambassadors, as well as a tireless advocate for the disabled. Itzhak Perlman’s heartfelt
performances on stage, and dedicated efforts to educate the next generation will continue
to enrich the human symphony. (Applause.) The Honorable William D. Ruckelshaus. (Applause.)
From his time as an Army drill sergeant to his service at the highest levels of government,
William D. Ruckelshaus has served our nation with dedication and integrity. The first administrator
of the Environmental Protection Agency, he led the government’s efforts to help communities
struggling with contaminated rivers and polluted cities. Years later, he returned to the helm
to carry forward its mission of environmental stewardship. With conviction and courage,
William D. Ruckelshaus continues to place principle over politics, continuing his lifetime
of advocacy on behalf of our nation and our planet. (Applause.) Stephen Sondheim. (Applause.) An acclaimed
lyricist and composer, Stephen Sondheim is master of the American musical. His witty,
poignant shows tell tales of misfits, romantics, dreamers, and lunatics, each meticulously
wrought, many grappling with the dark urges or dashed hopes. Yet his musicals are also
full of joyous energy, sustained by gorgeous melodies and brilliant turns of phrase. His
astonishing body of work includes many of our nation’s best-loved, most frequently
staged musicals, and people around the world know and love his songs. Stephen Sondheim
has forever left his mark on the American stage. (Applause.) Steven Spielberg. (Applause.) From E.T. and
Jurassic Park to Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg has firmly established
his place as one of history’s most influential filmmakers. He has brought entire universes
to life, broadened our horizons, and ushered iconic American characters into being. Our
world has been shaped by his stories, and through his Shoah Foundation, he’s helped
thousands of survivors of genocide tell world-changing stories of their own. He represents the best
of American culture and humanitarianism, and we honor his timeless contributions to our
national life. (Applause.) Barbra Joan Streisand. (Applause.) For six
decades, Barbra Joan Streisand has used her extraordinary voice to bring life to the range
and humor of the human experience. Her talent, authenticity, and bold performances have left
an indelible mark on American film, theater and music, inspiring generations of fans and
performers. As a philanthropist and powerful advocate for women’s heart health, she encourages
others to use their own voices to make a difference. Barbra Joan Streisand’s legacy will endure
in the American narrative. (Applause.) James Taylor. (Applause.) For decades, James
Taylor has used the power of music to enrich our nation and the world. From longing and
love to loss and renewal, his intimate songwriting captures the heart of the human experience.
Through fire and rain and so much more, each generation that grows to know James Taylor’s
music will continue to be moved by his timelessness and enduring beauty. (Applause.) Holly Yasui, receiving on behalf of Minoru
Yasui. (Applause.) From the fruit farms of Oregon to the hallowed halls of the Supreme
Court, Minoru Yasui devoted his life to fighting for basic human rights and the fair and equal
treatment of every American. In challenging the military curfew placed on Japanese Americans
during World War II, he brought critical attention to the issue, and paved the way for all Americans
to stand as full and equal citizens. Minoru Yasui’s example endures as a reminder of
the power of one voice echoing for justice. (Applause.) THE PRESIDENT: Give them a big round of applause,
the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom winners. (Applause.) This is an extraordinary group.
Even by the standards of Medal of Freedom recipients, this is a class act. We are just reminded when we see these individuals
here on the stage what an incredible tapestry this country is. And what a great blessing
to be in a nation where individuals as diverse, from as wildly different backgrounds, can
help to shape our dreams, how we live together, help define justice and freedom and love.
They represent what’s best in us, and we are very, very proud to be able to celebrate
them here today. My understanding is also there’s pretty
good food in the White House, so please enjoy the reception. And congratulations to all
the recipients. Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.)


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