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President Obama Awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Obama Awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom


The President:
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, “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. (laughter) (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. (laughter) (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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