Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush is one of 15 people who have received the nation’s top civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Barack Obama bestowed the medals Tuesday at the White House.
This year’s Medal of Freedom recipients include Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, heroes of the civil rights movement, one of the world’s richest men, a Holocaust survivor and legends of baseball and basketball.
In the East Room ceremony, President Obama said the honorees reflect the best of humanity. “This year’s Medal of Freedom recipients reveal the best of who we are and who we aspire to be.”
The president said his predecessor, Mr. Bush, was being honored not only for his presidency, but for seven decades of service to his country.
“From a decorated Navy pilot who nearly gave his life in World War II, to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, from CIA director to U.S. envoy to China, to the vice presidency, his life is a testament that public service is a noble calling,” said Obama.
The president also credited the elder President Bush with building the international coalition that defeated Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and with helping to peacefully end the Cold War.
The president praised Bush’s humility and decency, and his work with former political opponent, President Bill Clinton to extend relief to the victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami.
Merkel, the first woman and first former East German to be German Chancellor, also was honored, although she was not present. The president said she would visit Washington “soon,” and she would receive her award then.
“To people around the world, the story of Angela Merkel is an inspiration. ‘Everything is possible,’ she said, something the world has seen again in recent weeks, ‘Freedom does not come about of itself. It must be struggled for and then defended anew every day of our lives.'”
The president paid tribute to Congressman John Lewis, who he said time and again faced down death as a young man working for African-American civil rights in the 1960’s.
“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.”
Activist Sylvia Mendez was honored for her lifetime of efforts on behalf of education for Hispanic Americans.
Other medal recipients include John Adams, who founded an environmental advocacy group; poet and activist Maya Angelou; billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett; artist Jasper Johns; and world-renowned musician Yo-Yo Ma.
Obama also paid tribute to Jewish Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein; Dr. Tom Little, who was killed by the Taliban after years of providing vision care to people in Afghanistan; and former labor leader John Sweeney; as well as former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith and two sports legends: baseball player Stan Musial and basketball player, coach and civil rights campaigner Bill Russell.
The Medal of Freedom is America’s highest civilian honor. It is presented to people who have made important contributions to U.S. national security, world peace, culture or other areas.