(WASHINGTON) — President Obama on Wednesday awarded the National Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to 16 Americans, saying “their extraordinary lives remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit, the values that define us as Americans, the potential that lives inside of all of us.”
The recipients, including former President Bill Clinton, media icon Oprah Winfrey, baseball legend Ernie Banks and late astronaut Sally Ride, were recognized for their wide-ranging contributions to sports, music, politics, science, entertainment and journalism.
“This is one of my favorite events every year,” the president told a packed house at a White House ceremony. “And this year, it’s just a little more special because this marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy establishing this award.”
Kennedy created the award, but never lived to make the first presentation. He was fatally shot in Dallas two weeks before he was scheduled to honor the inaugural class of recipients. Since that time, more than 500 individuals have been awarded the Medal of Freedom.
On Wednesday, the president recognized each recipient’s accomplishments. He praised Clinton for his public service in the White House and for his work with the Clinton Foundation and jokingly thanked the former president for “the advice and counsel that you’ve offered me, on and off the golf course, and, most importantly, for your lifesaving work around the world.”
“And of course I am most grateful for his patience during the endless travels of my secretary of state,” he added, squeezing in a shout out to Hillary Clinton, who sat in the first row.
Lauding his close friend Winfrey, the president recounted how “her bosses told her she should change her name to Susie.”
“I have to pause here to say, I got the same advice,” he said to laughter. “They didn’t say I should be named Susie, but they suggested I should change my name.”
“People can relate to Susie, that’s what they said. It turned out, surprisingly, that people can relate to Oprah just fine,” he said.
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