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President Obama Honors the Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients

President Obama Honors the Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients


The President:
Thank you very much. (applause) Everybody, please have a seat,
and welcome to the White House. It is an extraordinary pleasure
to be here with all of you to present this year’s
Medals of Freedom. And I have to say, just
looking around the room, this is a packed house, which
is a testament to how cool this group is. (laughter) Everybody wanted
to check them out. This is the highest civilian
honor this country can bestow, which is ironic, because
nobody sets out to win it. No one ever picks up a
guitar, or fights a disease, or starts a movement,
thinking, “You know what, if I keep this up, in 2012,
I could get a medal in the White House from a guy
named Barack Obama.” (laughter) That wasn’t in the plan. But that’s exactly what
makes this award so special. Every one of today’s honorees
is blessed with an extraordinary amount of talent. All of them are driven. But, yes, we could fill this
room many times over with people who are talented and driven. What sets these men and women
apart is the incredible impact they have had on so many
people — not in short, blinding bursts, but steadily,
over the course of a lifetime. Together, the honorees
on this stage, and the ones who
couldn’t be here, have moved us with their
words; they have inspired us with their actions. They’ve enriched our lives and
they’ve changed our lives for the better. Some of them are
household names; others have labored quietly
out of the public eye. Most of them may never fully
appreciate the difference they’ve made or the
influence that they’ve had, but that’s where
our job comes in. It’s our job to help let them
know how extraordinary their impact has been on our lives. And so today we present this
amazing group with one more accolade for a life well led,
and that’s the Presidential Medal of Freedom. So I’m going to take an
opportunity — I hope you guys don’t mind — to
brag about each of you, starting with
Madeleine Albright. Usually, Madeleine
does the talking. (laughter) Once in a while, she lets
her jewelry do the talking. (laughter) When Saddam Hussein
called her a “snake,” she wore a serpent
on her lapel — (laughter) — the next time
she visited Baghdad. When Slobodan Milosevic
referred to her as a “goat,” a new pin appeared
in her collection. As the first woman to serve
as America’s top diplomat, Madeleine’s courage and
toughness helped bring peace to the Balkans and paved the way
for progress in some of the most unstable corners of the world. And as an immigrant herself —
the granddaughter of Holocaust victims who fled her native
Czechoslovakia as a child — Madeleine brought a unique
perspective to the job. This is one of my
favorite stories. Once, at a
naturalization ceremony, an Ethiopian man came
up to her and said, “Only in America can a refugee
meet the Secretary of State.” And she replied, “Only in
America can a refugee become the Secretary of State.” (laughter) We’re extraordinarily honored
to have Madeleine here. And obviously, I think it’s fair
to say I speak for one of your successors who is so
appreciative of the work you did and the
path that you laid. It was a scorching
hot day in 1963, and Mississippi was on
the verge of a massacre. The funeral procession for
Medgar Evers had just disbanded, and a group of marchers was
throwing rocks at a line of equally defiant and
heavily-armed policemen. And suddenly, a white man in
shirtsleeves, hands raised, walked towards the protestors
and talked them into going home peacefully. And that man was John Doar. He was the face of the Justice
Department in the South. He was proof that the federal
government was listening. And over the years, John
escorted James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. He walked alongside the
Selma-to-Montgomery March. He laid the groundwork for the
Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the words of John Lewis,
“He gave (civil rights workers) a reason not to give
up on those in power.” And he did it by never
giving up on them. And I think it’s fair to say
that I might not be here had it not been for his work. Bob Dylan started out
singing other people’s songs. But, as he says, “There came a
point where I had to write what I wanted to say, because
what I wanted to say, nobody else was writing.” So born in Hibbing,
Minnesota — a town, he says, where “you couldn’t be a
rebel — it was too cold” — (laughter) — Bob moved to
New York at age 19. By the time he was 23, Bob’s
voice, with its weight, its unique, gravelly power was
redefining not just what music sounded like, but the
message it carried and how it made people feel. Today, everybody from Bruce
Springsteen to U2 owes Bob a debt of gratitude. There is not a bigger giant in
the history of American music. All these years later, he’s
still chasing that sound, still searching for a
little bit of truth. And I have to say that
I am a really big fan. (laughter) In the 1960s, more than
2 million people died from smallpox every year. Just over a decade later, that
number was zero — 2 million to zero, thanks, in part,
to Dr. Bill Foege. As a young medical missionary
working in Nigeria, Bill helped develop a
vaccination strategy that would later be used to
eliminate smallpox from the face of the Earth. And when that war was won, he
moved on to other diseases, always trying to
figure out what works. In one remote Nigerian
village, after vaccinating 2,000 people in a single day,
Bill asked the local chief how he had gotten so many
people to show up. And the chief explained that he
had told everyone to come see — to “come to the village and see
the tallest man in the world.” (laughter) Today, that world owes that
really tall man a great debt of gratitude. On the morning that John
Glenn blasted off into space, America stood still. And for half an hour, the phones
stopped ringing in Chicago police headquarters, and New
York subway drivers offered a play-by-play account
over the loudspeakers. President Kennedy interrupted
a breakfast with congressional leaders and joined 100 million
TV viewers to hear the famous words, “Godspeed, John Glenn.” The first American
to orbit the Earth, John Glenn became a hero
in every sense of the word, but he didn’t stop there
serving his country. As a senator, he found new
ways to make a difference. And on his second trip
into space at age 77, he defied the odds once again. But he reminds everybody,
don’t tell him he’s lived a historic life. He says, “Are living.” He’ll say, “Don’t put
it in the past tense.” He’s still got a lot
of stuff going on. Gordon Hirabayashi knew what
it was like to stand alone. As a student at the
University of Washington, Gordon was one of only three
Japanese Americans to defy the executive order that forced
thousands of families to leave their homes, their jobs, and
their civil rights behind and move to internment camps
during World War II. He took his case all the way to
the Supreme Court, and he lost. And it would be another 40
years before that decision was reversed, giving Asian
Americans everywhere a small measure of justice. In Gordon’s words, “It takes a
crisis to tell us that unless citizens are willing to
standup for the (Constitution), it’s not worth the
paper it’s written on.” And this country is better off
because of citizens like him who are willing to stand up. Similarly, when Cesar Chavez
sat Dolores Huerta down at his kitchen table and told her
they should start a union, she thought he was joking. She was a single mother
of seven children, so she obviously didn’t
have a lot of free time. But Dolores had been an
elementary school teacher and remembered seeing
children come to school hungry and without shoes. So in the end, she agreed
— and workers everywhere are glad that she did. Without any
negotiating experience, Dolores helped lead a worldwide
grape boycott that forced growers to agree to some
of the country’s first farm worker contracts. And ever since, she has fought
to give more people a seat at the table. “Don’t wait to be invited,”
she says, “Step in there.” And on a personal note, Dolores
was very gracious when I told her I had stolen her
slogan, “Si, se puede.” Yes, we can. (laughter) Knowing her, I’m pleased
that she let me off easy — (laughter) — because Dolores
does not play. (laughter) For years, Jan Karski’s students
at Georgetown University knew he was a great professor; what
they didn’t realize was he was also a hero. Fluent in four languages,
possessed of a photographic memory, Jan served as a courier
for the Polish resistance during the darkest days
of World War II. Before one trip
across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him
that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale, and smuggled
him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp
to see for himself. Jan took that information to
President Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts
of the Holocaust and imploring to the world to take action. It was decades before Jan
was ready to tell his story. By then, he said, “I don’t
need courage anymore. So I teach compassion.” Growing up in Georgia
in the late 1800s, Juliette Gordon Low was
not exactly typical. She flew airplanes. She went swimming. She experimented with
electricity for fun. (laughter) And she recognized early on
that in order to keep up with the changing times, women
would have to be prepared. So at age 52, after meeting the
founder of the Boy Scouts in England, Juliette came home
and called her cousin and said, “I’ve got something for
the girls of Savannah, and all of America,
and all the world. And we’re going to
start it tonight!” A century later, almost 60
million Girl Scouts have gained leadership skills and
self-confidence through the organization that she founded. They include CEOs, astronauts,
my own Secretary of State. And from the very beginning,
they have also included girls of different races and
faiths and abilities, just the way that Juliette
would have wanted it. Toni Morrison — she is used
to a little distraction. As a single mother working at
a publishing company by day, she would carve out a little
time in the evening to write, often with her two sons
pulling on her hair and tugging at her earrings. Once, a baby spit up on her
tablet so she wrote around it. (laughter) Circumstances may
not have been ideal, but the words that
came out were magical. Toni Morrison’s prose brings us
that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few
writers ever attempt. From “Song of
Solomon” to “Beloved,” Toni reaches us deeply, using
a tone that is lyrical, precise, distinct, and inclusive. She believes that language
“arcs toward the place where meaning might lie.” The rest of us are lucky to be
following along for the ride. During oral argument, Justice
John Paul Stevens often began his line of questioning with
a polite, “May I interrupt?” or “May I ask a question?” You can imagine the
lawyers would say, “okay” — (laughter) — after which he
would, just as politely, force a lawyer to stop dancing
around and focus on the most important issues in the case. And that was his signature
style: modest, insightful, well-prepared, razor-sharp. He is the third-longest
serving Justice in the history of the Court. And Justice Stevens applied,
throughout his career, his clear and graceful manner to
the defense of individual rights and the rule of law, always
favoring a pragmatic solution over an ideological one. Ever humble, he would happily
comply when unsuspecting tourists asked him to take their
picture in front of the Court. (laughter) And at his vacation
home in Florida, he was John from Arlington,
better known for his world-class bridge game than
his world-changing judicial opinions. Even in his final
days on the bench, Justice Stevens insisted he was
still “learning on the job.” But in the end, we are the
ones who have learned from him. When a doctor first told
Pat Summitt she suffered from dementia, she
almost punched him. When a second doctor advised
her to retire, she responded, “Do you know who you’re
dealing with here?” (laughter) Obviously, they did not. As Pat says, “I can fix a
tractor, mow hay, plow a field, chop tobacco, fire a
barn, and call the cows. But what I’m really
known for is winning.” In 38 years at Tennessee,
she racked up eight national championships and more than
1,000 wins — understand, this is more than any college
coach, male or female, in the history of the NCAA. And more importantly, every
player that went through her program has either graduated
or is on her way to a degree. That’s why anybody who feels
sorry for Pat will find themselves on the receiving
end of that famous glare, or she might punch you. (laughter) She’s still getting up every day
and doing what she does best, which is teaching. “The players,” she says,
“are my best medicine.” Our final honoree is not
here — Shimon Peres, the President of Israel, who has
done more for the cause of peace in the Middle East than
just about anybody alive. I’ll be hosting President Peres
for a dinner here at the White House next month, and we’ll be
presenting him with his medal and honoring his incredible
contributions to the state of Israel and the
world at that time. So I’m looking forward
to welcoming him. And if it’s all right with you,
I will save my best lines about him for that occasion. So these are the recipients
of the 2012 Medals of Freedom. And just on a personal note, I
had a chance to see everybody in the back. What’s wonderful about these
events for me is so many of these people are my
heroes individually. I know how they
impacted my life. I remember reading “Song of
Solomon” when I was a kid and not just trying to
figure out how to write, but also how to be
and how to think. And I remember in college
listening to Bob Dylan and my world opening up because he
captured something that — about this country that was so vital. And I think about
Dolores Huerta, reading about her when I was
starting off as an organizer. Everybody on this stage has
marked my life in profound ways. And I was telling — somebody
like Pat Summitt — when I think about my two daughters,
who are tall and gifted, and knowing that because of
folks like Coach Summitt they’re standing up straight and diving
after loose balls and feeling confident and strong, then I
understand that the impact that these people have had
extends beyond me. It will continue for
generations to come. What an extraordinary honor to
be able to say thank you to all of them for the great work that
they have done on behalf of this country and on
behalf of the world. So it is now my great honor to
present them with a small token of our appreciation. (applause) Military Aide:
Presidential Medal
of Freedom citations: Madeleine Korbel Albright. Madeleine Korbel Albright broke
barriers and left an indelible mark on the world as the first
female Secretary of State in the United States’ history. Through her consummate diplomacy
and steadfast democratic ideals, Secretary Albright advanced
peace in the Middle East, nuclear arms control,
justice in the Balkans, and human rights
around the world. With unwavering leadership and
continued engagement with the global community, she continues
her noble pursuit of freedom and dignity for all people. The President:
I think this goes very
well with your broach. (laughter) (medal is presented) (applause) Military Aide:
John Doar. As African Americans
strove for justice, John Doar led federal efforts
to defend equality and enforce civil rights. Risking his life to confront
the injustices around him, he prevented a violent riot,
obtained convictions for the killings of civil
rights activists, and stood by the first African
American student at the University of Mississippi
on his first day of class. During pivotal moments in the
Civil Rights Movement and in the troubled times of
the Watergate scandal, John Doar fought to protect
the core values of liberty, equality and democracy that
have made America a leader among nations. (medal is presented) (applause) Military Aide:
Bill Foege. The President:
He is pretty tall. (laughter) Military Aide:
A distinguished physician
and epidemiologist, Bill Foege helped lead
a campaign to eradicate smallpox that stands
among medicine’s greatest success stories. At the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, the Carter Center, and the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation, he has taken on humanity’s
most intractable public health challenges from infectious
diseases to child survival and development. Bill Foege has driven decades
of progress to safeguard the well-being of all, and he has
inspired a generation of leaders in the fight for
a healthier world. (medal is presented) (applause) John Glenn. John Glenn has set a peerless
example through his service to our nation. As a Marine Corps pilot and
the first American to orbit the Earth, he sparked our passions
for ingenuity and adventure and lifted humanity’s ambitions
into the expanses of space. In the United States Senate, he
worked tirelessly to ensure all Americans had the opportunity
to reach for limitless dreams. Whether by advancing legislation
to limit the spread of nuclear weapons or by becoming the
oldest person ever to visit space, John Glenn’s example
has moved us all to look to new horizons with
drive and optimism. (medal is presented) (applause) Susan Carnahan, accepting on
behalf of her husband Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi. In his open defiance of
discrimination against Japanese Americans during World War
II, Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi demanded our nation live up
to its founding principles. Imprisoned for ignoring curfew
and refusing to register for internment camps, he took his
case to the Supreme Court, which ruled against him in 1943. Refusing to abandon his belief
in an America that stands for fundamental human rights,
he pursued justice until his conviction was
overturned in 1987. Gordon Hirabayashi’s legacy
reminds us that patriotism is rooted not in ethnicity,
but in our shared ideals. And his example will forever
call on us to defend the liberty of all our citizens. (medal is presented) (applause) Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta. One of America’s great labor
and civil rights icons, Dolores Clara Fernandez
Huerta has devoted her life to advocating for
marginalized communities. Alongside Cesar Chavez, she
co-founded the United Farm Workers of America and fought to
secure basic rights for migrant workers and their families,
helping save thousands from neglect and abuse. Dolores Huerta has never lost
faith in the power of community organizing, and through the
Dolores Huerta Foundation, she continues to train and
mentor new activists to walk the streets into history. (medal is presented) (applause) Adam Daniel Rotfeld, former
Polish foreign minister accepting on behalf
of Jan Karski. As a young officer in
the Polish Underground, Jan Karski was among the
first to relay accounts of the Holocaust to the world. A witness to atrocity in the
Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi Izbica transit camp, he
repeatedly crossed enemy line to document
the face of genocide, and courageously voiced
tragic truths all the way to President Roosevelt. Jan Karski illuminated one of
the darkest chapters of history, and his heroic intervention
on behalf of the innocent will never be forgotten. (medal is presented) (applause) Richard Platt, accepting on
behalf of his great aunt, Juliette Gordon Low. An artist, athlete and
trailblazer for America’s daughters, Juliette Gordon Low
founded an organization to teach young women self-reliance
and resourcefulness. A century later, during
the “Year of the Girl,” the Girl Scouts’ more than 3
million members are leaders in their communities and are
translating new skills into successful careers. Americans of all backgrounds
continue to draw inspiration from Juliette Gordon
Low’s remarkable vision, and we celebrate her dedication
to empowering girls everywhere. (medal is presented) (applause) Toni Morrison. The first African American
woman to win a Nobel Prize, Toni Morrison is one
of our nation’s most distinguished storytellers. She has captivated readers
through lyrical prose that depicts the complexities of
a people and challenges our concepts of race and gender. Her works are hallmarks of the
American literary tradition, and the United States proudly
honors her for her nursing of souls and strengthening
the character of our union. (medal is presented) (applause) John Paul Stevens. From the Navy to the bench, John
Paul Stevens has devoted himself to service to our nation. After earning a Bronze
Star in World War II, Stevens returned home to
pursue a career in law. As an attorney, he became
a leading practitioner of anti-trust law. And as a Supreme Court Justice,
he dedicated his long and distinguished tenure to applying
our Constitution with fidelity and independence. His integrity, humility, and
steadfast commitment to the rule of law have fortified the noble
vision of our nation’s founders. (medal is presented) (applause) Pat Summitt. Pat Summitt is an unparalleled
figure in collegiate sports. Over 38 seasons, she proudly led
the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers to 32 SEC tournament
and regular season championships and eight national titles,
becoming the all-time winningest coach in NCAA
basketball history. On the court, Coach Summitt
inspired young women across our country to shoot even higher
in pursuit of their dreams. Off the court, she has inspired
us all by turning her personal struggle into a public campaign
to combat Alzheimer’s disease. Pat Summitt’s strength and
character exemplify all that is best about
athletics in America. (medal is presented) (applause) Bob Dylan. The President:
Come on, Bob. (laughter) A modern-day troubadour, Bob
Dylan established himself as one of the most influential
musicians of the 20th century. The rich poetry of his lyrics
opened up new possibilities for popular song and
inspired generations. His melodies have brought
ancient traditions into the modern age. More than 50 years
after his career began, Bob Dylan remains an eminent
voice in our national conversation and
around the world. (medal is presented) (applause) The President:
Can everybody please
stand and give a rousing applause to our Medal
of Freedom winners? (applause) Well, we could not be
prouder of all of them. We could not be more
grateful to all of them. You have had an
impact on all of us, and I know that you will
continue to have an impact on all of us. So thank you for being here. Thank you for putting yourself
through White House ceremonies — (laughter) — which are always full
of all kinds of protocol. Fortunately, we also have
a reception afterwards. I hear the food around
here is pretty good. (laughter) So I look forward to all of
you having a chance to stay and mingle, and again, thank
you again, to all of you. (applause)


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