President Obama on Tuesday honored 13 Americans with the prestigious Medal of Freedom. The recipients included some of the country's best known political, cultural and sports figures including socialist union leader Dolores Huerta, legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, and retiring University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summit.
Speaking of the group, President Obama said, "I know how they impacted my life." He also told the distinguished group that he felt a personal connection to many in the group, calling them, "my heroes individually."
"Everybody on this stage has marked my life in profound ways," said the president.
The Medal of Freedom is awarded to Americans – both living and dead – who have made meritorious contributions to the national interests of the United States, world peace or by significant contributions that have impacted society. It is the highest civilian award in the United States.
Most all of the recipients are well-known in their field of expertise. However, Huerta is best known for her ties to the Democratic Socialists of America and is the group's honorary chairwoman. In addition, she is the co-founder of the United Farm Workers union and has often talked of how much Republicans despise Latinos.
Dylan, whose appearance drew the biggest applause in the crowed East Room, did not disappoint as he ambled up to the stage in his sunglasses, bowtie and embellished black suit as if he were getting ready to perform.
When speaking of the legendary musician, President Obama recalled "my world opening up, because he captured something about this country that was so vital."
Summitt, who as a young coach in her mid-twenties, led the University of Tennessee women's basketball team to more NCAA Final Four appearances than any other team, retired at the end of this season over her struggle with early onset Alzheimer's disease.
Other honorees included:
- Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State
- Dr. William Foege, an epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox
- The late Gordon Hirabayashi, who openly denounced the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II
- John Doar, a pivotal civil rights activist
- John Paul Stevens, former U.S. Supreme Court justice
- Shimon Peres, president of Israel
- The late Jan Karski, a resistance fighter during World War II
- John Glenn, the first American in space
- Juliette Gordon Lowe, founder of the Girl Scouts
"This is the highest civilian honor this country can bestow, which is ironic, because nobody sets out to win it," Obama said in the packed hall. "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.'"
Prior to the ceremony, a medley of Dylan songs including "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "The Times They Are a-Changin" were performed by the Marine Corp band.