President Obama Honors the 2014 Medal of Freedom Recipients

(applause) The President:
Thank you so much. Everybody, have
a seat. Well, welcome to
the White House. This is one of my
favorite events. Once a year, we set
aside this event to celebrate people who
have made America stronger, and wiser, and more
humane, and more beautiful with our
highest civilian honor – the Presidential
Medal of Freedom. This year we honor 18. Unfortunately, Stephen Sondheim
could not be with us today. I’m going to be presenting
him with this award at our 2015 ceremony. We give thanks to public
servants who have devoted their lives to their fellow citizens. When Edward Roybal told
Speaker Tip O’Neill that he was starting a Congressional
Hispanic Caucus, there were so few Hispanics in Congress
that Tip joked they could fit the whole caucus
in a phone booth. But Edward saw
beyond the times. As a congressman from Los
Angeles for 30 years, he fought for
bilingual education, bilingual proceedings
in our judicial system, and to make sure Hispanic
Americans counted — literally. Thanks to him, the
Census was revised to more accurately
count Latinos. Although his roots in
America went back hundreds of years, he championed
the cause of immigrants, and spoke up for
vulnerable communities, and was one of few in
the early 1980s calling for more AIDS research. He left us nearly a decade
ago, but Edward Roybal was and remains a hero to so
many — not just Latinos but all Americans. Every girl in Little League,
every woman playing college sports, and every parent —
including Michelle and myself — who watches their daughter on
a field or in the classroom is forever grateful to the
late Patsy Takemoto Mink. I am particularly
grateful because she was my congresswoman for
a long time. (laughter) Denied admission to medical
school because she was a woman, Patsy went on to law
school and to co-authored Title IX, banning gender
discrimination in our schools. Patsy was many “firsts” —
including the first woman of color in Congress — and
to those of us in Hawaii, she represented the best
of public service and the Aloha spirit. And if she was a first,
she dedicated her life to making sure that she
would not be the last. From championing civil
rights to fighting for — fighting against gender
discrimination — Patsy was a passionate
advocate for opportunity, equality and realizing
the full promise of the American Dream. When John Dingell’s father,
a New Deal Democrat, passed away in 1955,
John stepped up. And over the course of six
decades — a congressional career longer than
any in history — John built a peerless
record of his own. He gaveled in the
vote for Medicare, helped lead the fight
for the Civil Rights Act. For more than half a century,
in every single Congress, John introduced a bill for
comprehensive health care. That is, until he didn’t
have to do it anymore. (laughter and applause) I could not have
been prouder to have John by my side
when I signed the Affordable
Care Act into law. John will retire at the end
of this session, but at 88, he’s still going strong. And his life reminds us
that change takes time; it takes courage
and persistence. But if we push hard
enough and long enough, change is possible. As a University of
Chicago student, Abner Mikva stopped by the
local Democratic headquarters and asked to volunteer. I love this story. A committeeman
asked who sent you. And Ab said, nobody. And the committeeman
said, we don’t want nobody, nobody sent. (laughter) That’s
Chicago for you. (laughter) Despite that abrupt dismissal,
Ab went on to devote his life to public service — reformed
Illinois’s criminal code, defended free speech and
consumer rights; in 1993, struck down the Pentagon’s
ban on gays in the military. He was overturned on that one —
but history proved him right. And he inspired the next
generation, including me. After I graduated
from law school, he offered me the chance
to be his law clerk. I declined but was
extraordinarily grateful, and he forgave me — (laughter) — for which I was
also grateful. Ab transcends any single moment
in recent political history. But he had a hand in shaping
some of the best of it. So we’ve got some
extraordinary public servants on this stage. We also give thanks
for innovators who’ve changed our world. Mildred Dresselhaus’s
high school yearbook contained commentary
from her classmates. They printed a
mathematical tribute: “Mildred equals
brains plus fun. In math and science,
she’s second to none.” (laughter) Growing up in
New York during the Great Depression, this daughter
of Polish immigrants had three clear paths open
to her: teaching, nursing, and secretarial school. Somehow she had
something else in mind. And she became an electrical
engineer and a physicist, and rose in MIT’s ranks,
performed groundbreaking experiments on carbon, became
one of the world’s most celebrated scientists. And her influence is all around
us — in the cars we drive, the energy we generate,
the electronic devices that power our lives. When she arrived at MIT
in 1960, only 4 percent of students were women. Today, almost half are, a
new generation walking the path that Millie blazed. Robert Solow’s father was
a businessman who handled a lot of documents. And when Robert became an
economist, his dad joked, we do the same thing:
deliver papers. But Bob’s influence extends
far beyond the page. More than just about
any living economist, he has shaped economic
policy, and with it, the lives of people everywhere. His insights into how
technological progress drives growth transformed our thinking
about how to build prosperity, leading to more investments
in research and education – in other words, more
investments in people. When he won the Nobel
Prize, a colleague wrote, “Economists’ faces lit
up all over the world.” And this isn’t exactly
an irrationally exuberant group,
economists. (laughter) They don’t
usually get real fired up. But Bob isn’t just admired
by his peers; he is adored. And he continues to be
a leading voice on the economic challenges
of our times, especially when it comes to reversing
income inequality and growing the economy
for everybody – always pushing our
nation to do better for everybody, for all. So, we give thanks
to public servants, we give thanks to innovators,
and we give thanks to performers who have captivated our
hearts and our minds. The Onion once ran this
headline: “Court Rules Meryl Streep Unable to Be Tried by
Jury As She Has No Peers.” (laughter and applause) I think this is like the
third or fourth award Meryl’s gotten since
I’ve been in office, and I’ve said it publicly:
I love Meryl Streep. I love her. Her husband knows I love her. Michelle knows I love her. There’s nothing either
of them can do about it. (laughter) But, she’s done it all
for her craft. She’s sung Abba, which
— that’s something. (laughter) She learned violin, wore
a nun’s habit, faced down a charging lion,
mastered every accent under the sun. She inhabits her characters
so fully and compassionately, saying, “It’s the great
gift of human beings that we have this
power of empathy.” And off screen, as an
advocate for women and girls, she uses that gift to help
others write the life stories of their choosing, and to
encourage greater empathy in the rest of us. So Meryl is truly one of
America’s leading ladies. And then there’s Stevie. Don’t get Michelle talking
about Stevie Wonder now. (laughter) Early copies of
Stevie Wonder’s classic album Talking Book had
a simple message, written in Braille:
“Here is my music. It is all I have to
tell you how I feel. Know that your love
keeps my love strong.” This is, by the way, the
first album I ever bought with my own money. I was 10 years old, maybe
11, with my own cash. I didn’t have a lot of it. And I listened to that —
that thing got so worn out, had all scratches. Young people, you
won’t remember this, but you’d have albums. (laughter) And they’d get
scratched. For more than 50 years,
Stevie has channeled his “Innervisions” into messages
of hope and healing, in becoming one of the
most influential musicians in American history. A musical prodigy with
an electrifying voice, Stevie’s blend of R&B, and
jazz, and funk, and blues, and soul, and whatever
else you’ve got, speaks of love and loss, justice
and equality, war and peace. But what really defines
Stevie’s music is the warmth and humanity that
resonate in every note. Some of his songs helped
us to fall in love. Others mended our hearts. Some motivated us on
the campaign trail. (laughter) And thanks to
Stevie, all of us have been moved
to higher ground. Alvin Ailey was born
during the Depression in small-town Texas. And by the time he was
27, he had founded a dance company of his own
in New York City. It became a place where
artists of all races had a home. All that mattered
was talent. The dances he choreographed
were a blend of ballet, modern, and jazz, and
they used the blues and spirituals, as well. And through him,
African-American history was told in a way that it had
never been told before — with passionate, virtuoso dance
performances that transfixed audiences worldwide. Alvin said that, “Dance came
from the people and that it should always be delivered
back to the people.” Alvin Ailey delivered, both
through his life and through the dance company that will
forever bear his name. When Isabel Allende learned
that her grandfather in Chile was dying, she
started writing him a letter. Night after night, she
returned to it – until, she realized, she was actually
writing her first novel. She’s never really stopped. Her novels and memoirs tell
of families, magic, romance, oppression, violence,
redemption — all the big stuff. But in her hands, the
big becomes graspable and familiar and human. And exiled from Chile
by a military junta, she made the U.S. her home;
today, the foundation she created to honor
her late daughter helps families worldwide. She begins all her
books on January 8th, the day she began that letter
to her grandfather years ago. “Write to register
history,” she says. “Write what should
not be forgotten.” On the night that
the Berlin Wall fell, only one American network anchor
was there reporting live. A reporter remembers Ben Bradlee
standing in the Post newsroom, watching Tom Brokaw at
the Brandenburg Gate and wondering aloud,
“How do we beat that?” (laughter) “Brokaw’s got this.” At pivotal moments,
Tom got it. He reported on Watergate,
snuck a camera into Tiananmen Square, sat down for
the first one-on-one with Mikhail Gorbachev by an
American TV reporter, covered every presidential
election since 1968. We’ve welcomed him into
our homes at dinnertime and Sunday mornings. We’ve trusted him to tell us
what we needed to know and to ask the questions
that needed asking. I know, because I’ve been on
the receiving end of some of those questions. (laughter) Many of him know — many
know him as the chronicler of the Greatest
Generation, and today, we celebrate him as one of our
nation’s greatest journalists. We give thanks to
trailblazers who bent the arc of our nation
towards justice. In the 1950s, golfer
Charlie Sifford won the Negro National Open –
five times in a row. But by the time he became the
first African American to earn a PGA Tour card, most of his
best golf was behind him. On the tour, Charlie
was sometimes banned from clubhouse restaurants. Folks threatened him, shouted
slurs from the gallery, kicked his ball into the rough. Charlie’s laughing about
that — my ball is always in the rough. (laughter) And because golf
can be a solitary sport, Charlie didn’t have
teammates to lean on. But he did have his
lovely wife, Rose. And he had plenty of guts and
grit and that trademark cigar. And Charlie won on the Tour
twice, both after age 45. But it was never
just about the wins. As Charlie says, “I wasn’t
just trying to do this for me, I was trying to
do it for the world.” Speaking of
trailblazers, to some, Marlo Thomas will
always be “That Girl,” who followed her dreams to
New York City and kind of was running around Manhattan,
having fun, on her own terms. To others, she’s the creative
mind behind “Free to Be … You and Me,” whose songs taught a
generation of kids that they were strong and beautiful,
just the way they were. As a founder of the “Ms. Foundation,” Marlo helped turn
women’s hopes and aspirations into concrete social
and economic progress. And she’s helped build the
hospital her father founded, St. Jude’s, into one of
the premier pediatric hospitals in the world. She recalls her dad saying,
“There are two types of people in the world: the
givers and the takers. The takers sometimes eat
better, but the givers always sleep better.” I love that saying. Marlo Thomas sleeps very well
because she’s given so much. Raised on an Oklahoma
reservation by a Cheyenne mother and a Hodulgee Muskogee
father, Suzan Shown Harjo grew up to become one of
the most effective advocates for Native American rights. And through her work in
government and as the head of the National Congress
of American Indians and the Morning Star Institute,
she has helped preserve a million acres of Indian
lands, helped develop laws preserving
tribal sovereignty. She has repatriated sacred
cultural items to tribes, while expanding museums
that celebrate Native life. Because of Suzan, more young
Native Americans are growing up with pride in their
heritage, and with faith in their future. And she has taught all of
us that Native values make America stronger. On June 21, 1964, three
young men – two white, one black – set out to learn
more about the burning of a church in Neshoba County,
Mississippi: James Earl Chaney, 21 years old; Andrew
Goodman, 20 years old; and Michael Henry
Schwerner, 24 years old. Young men. And in that Freedom Summer,
these three Americans refused to sit on the sidelines. Their brutal murder by a gang
of Ku Klux Klan members shook the
conscience of our nation. It took 44 days to
find their bodies, 41 years to bring the lead
perpetrator to justice. And while they are often
remembered for how they died, we honor them today for how they
lived — with the idealism and the courage of youth. James, Andrew, and Michael
could not have known the impact they would have
on the Civil Rights Movement or on future generations. And here today, inspired
by their sacrifice, we continue to fight for
the ideals of equality and justice for which
they gave their lives. Today we are honored to be
joined by James’s daughter Angela, Andrew’s brother David,
and Michael’s wife, Rita. And finally, we give thanks to a
person whose love for her family is matched by her
devotion to her nation. To most Americans, Ethel
Kennedy is known as a wife, mother, and grandma. And in many ways, it’s
through these roles that she’s made her
mark on history. As Bobby Kennedy’s
partner in life, she shared his
commitment to justice. After his death, she
continued their work through the center she created in his
name, celebrating activists and journalists and
educating people around the world about threats
to human liberty. On urgent human rights issues
of our time — from juvenile justice to environmental
destruction – Ethel has been a force for change in
her quiet, flashy — unflashy, unstoppable way. As her family will tell
you, and they basically occupy this half of
the room — (laughter) — you don’t
mess with Ethel. (laughter) She’s gone to extraordinary
lengths to build support for the causes
close to her heart — including helping to raise
money for ALS research this summer by pouring a bucket
of ice water over her head. (laughter) As you may know, she
nominated me to do it, too. And as you may know, I chose
to write a check instead. (laughter) I grew up in Hawaii. I don’t like pouring ice
water on top of my head. (laughter) That is probably the
only time I’ve said no to Ethel, by the way. (laughter) Ethel is the matriarch of
a patriotic family, and with her encouragement,
many of her children and grandchildren are carrying
on the Kennedy tradition of public service. She is an emblem of enduring
faith and enduring hope, even in the face of unimaginable
loss and unimaginable grief. And she has touched the
lives of countless people around the world with her
generosity and her grace. It gives me great pleasure
to present this award, which her brother-in-law,
President Kennedy, re-established more
than 50 years ago. Ladies and gentlemen,
these are the recipients of the 2014 President
Medal of Freedom. Let’s give them a big
round of applause. (applause) Well, you don’t just
get applause. You actually
get a medal. (laughter) So let’s read the
citations. Military Aide: Robert
Battle, receiving on behalf of Alvin Ailey. A visionary
choreographer and dancer, Alvin Ailey transformed
American dance through his groundbreaking exploration
of the African American experience, weaving
traditional songs and stories with ballet, jazz, and
modern dance to create something entirely new. He founded and served
as artistic director of the Alvin Ailey
American Dance Theater, renowned worldwide for its
soulful, virtuoso performances, including the beloved American
masterpiece Revelations. An advocate for the importance
of art to the soul of our nation, Alvin Ailey’s life and
pioneering legacy remind us of our limitless potential
for creative self-expression. (applause) Military Aide:
Isabel Allende. A beloved daughter of Chile
and the United States, Isabel Allende has transfixed
readers worldwide with her extraordinary storytelling. Forced to flee Chile after
the overthrow of her cousin, President Salvador Allende,
she spent years abroad, filling her books
with the stories, rhythms and flavors of home. She is now one of the most
widely read and cherished Spanish-language
authors in history. She also writes and speaks
forcefully about the human rights of women and children,
and her foundation supports vulnerable families in
Chile and California. With creativity and
conviction, Isabel Allende continues to move and
delight the world. (applause) Military Aide:
Thomas J. Brokaw. (applause) One of our Nation’s
most admired journalists, Thomas J. Brokaw has helped
Americans better understand the world and each other. From Today, to NBC Nightly
News, to Meet the Press, Americans have relied on his
authoritative reporting and keen analysis
for decades. At moments of great
consequence — from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the
terrorist attacks of 9/11 — he was our nation’s eyes
and ears at the scene. He has lent his voice
to our Nation’s heroes, from The Greatest Generation to
the latest generation of service members
and their families. Thomas J. Brokaw’s
work remains the model of responsible journalism,
and his insights continue to enrich
our public discourse. (applause) Military Aide: Angela
Lewis, receiving on behalf of her father, James Earl
Chaney; David Goodman, receiving on behalf of his
brother Andrew Goodman; and Rita Schwerner Bender,
receiving on behalf of her husband, Michael
Henry Schwerner. (applause) In 1964, three young
men sought to right one of the many wrongs of the Jim
Crow era by joining hundreds of others to register black
voters in Mississippi during “Freedom Summer.” The work was
fraught with danger, yet their commitment to justice
was so strong that they were willing to risk
their lives for it. Their deaths shocked the
nation, and their courage has never been forgotten. James Earl Chaney,
Andrew Goodman, and Michael Henry Schwerner
still inspire us. Their ideals have been written
into the moral fabric of our nation, from the landmark civil
rights legislation enacted days after their deaths
to our continued pursuit of a more perfect union. (applause) Military Aide: The Honorable
John D. Dingell, Jr. John D. Dingell, Jr.’s
tenure surpasses that of any member of Congress
in American history. A child of the House,
he became its Dean, and his legacy is evident all
around us: in cleaner air, safer water, stronger
protections for workers, and greater respects for the
civil rights of all Americans. He summoned his grit
and determination for legislative battles over
health care, from Medicare to the Affordable Care Act. Thanks to his efforts,
millions more families across our Nation now have the
peace of mind that comes with access to quality,
affordable care. A grateful Nation
honors John D. Dingell, Jr. for his
lifetime of service, from World War II to nearly
six decades in Congress. (applause) Military Aide: Mildred
S. Dresselhaus. Mildred S. Dresselhaus
has helped uncover the mysteries of
our world. One of the most
distinguished physicists, materials scientists, and
electrical engineers of her generation, her experiments
into the conductivity of semi-metals transformed
our understanding of those materials,
leading to breakthroughs in modern electronics. Her pioneering research on
nanotubes has had implications across the economy, from
electronics to energy storage to automotive parts. As a leader and mentor, she
has inspired countless women to pursue opportunities in
physics and engineering. Mildred S. Dresselhaus’s
example is a testament to what we can achieve
when we summon the courage to follow
our curiosity and our dreams. (applause) Military Aide:
Susan Shown Harjo. Suzan Shown Harjo is a
poet, writer, curator, and advocate dedicated to
the dignity of all people. A Cheyenne and
Hodulgee Muscogee, and a citizen of the
Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, she has fought all her
life for the human, civil, and treaty rights
of Native peoples. As the head of the National
Congress of American Indians, president of the
Morning Star Institute, and a founding trustee of the
National Museum of the American Indian, her tireless efforts
have protected Native culture, returned Native lands, and
improved Native lives. With bold resolve, Suzan
Shown Harjo pushes us to always seek
justice in our time. (applause) Military Aide:
Ethel Kennedy. (applause) Ethel Kennedy’s life
is a story of perseverance and generosity. A tireless advocate for
the causes she holds dear, she founded the Robert
F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human
Rights where she advances her husband’s
vision and challenges us to imagine the
world as it should be. Whether on gun control,
environmental protection, human rights, or public health,
she tackles difficult issues with a relentless drive
and inspires those around her to do the same. In Ethel Kennedy, we find
the strength, resilience, and passion that are at the
heart of the American spirit. (applause) Military Aide: The
Honorable Abner Mikva. (applause) One of the greatest
jurists of his time, Abner Mikva built his career
on reverence for the law, commitment to public service,
and love for Chicago. As a Congressman, federal
judge, and counsel to President Clinton, he helped
shape the national debate on some of the most
challenging issues of the day, always insisting
that government live up to its responsibilities
to citizens. He has imparted his sense of
civic duty to a new generation, from shaping legal minds as a
law professor to challenging young people to give back
to their communities through public service. Thanks to Abner Mikva, our
laws — and our nation — are more fair and equal. (applause) Military Aide: Wendy Mink,
receiving on behalf of her mother, the Honorable
Patsy Takemoto Mink. (applause) Patsy Takemoto
Mink was ahead of her time. The first woman of color
elected to Congress, she entered office determined to
do all she could to ensure equal treatment for every American,
regardless of race or sex. She co-authored Title IX of the
Education Amendment of 1972, guaranteeing equal educational
opportunities for women. She was a forceful advocate for
civil rights legislation and for a sensible end
to the Vietnam War. She served her beloved
Hawaii with integrity and grace all her life. An American trailblazer,
Patsy Takemoto Mink helped build a nation that lives
up to its promise, and her example challenges us
to make progress in our time. (applause) Military Aide: The Honorable
Lucille Roybal Allard receiving on behalf of
the Honorable Edward R. Roybal. (applause) Edward R. Roybal
lived to serve. He served in the Civilian
Conservation Corps, in the Army during
World War II, and on the Los
Angeles City Council. In 1962, he became the first
Hispanic American elected to Congress from California
in almost a century, and he served there
for thirty years. He stood up for people
who needed a champion, including veterans,
the mentally ill, the elderly, and people
living with HIV/AIDS. He founded the Congressional
Hispanic Caucus to ensure that the voices of Hispanic Americans
would always be heard. Edward R. Roybal
believed that our nation is strongest when we
harness the talents of all of our people. That belief, and his legacy,
will always live on. Military Aide:
Charles Sifford. Charles “Charlie” Sifford
just wanted to play golf. At a time when the PGA adhered
to a “Caucasians only” rule, he risked everything
to affect change. In the face of death threats
and stinging insults, he persistently challenged the
discrimination that plagued his beloved sport while
demonstrating his extraordinary skills on the course, winning
six National Negro Opens before receiving his
PGA Tour card. He went on to win PGA events,
was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and received
an honorary doctorate from St. Andrews University. Charlie Sifford leveled the
fairway for generations of athletes of all races and
inspired a community beyond the sport he loves. (applause) Military Aide:
Robert M. Solow. (applause) A brilliant economist,
Robert M. Solow transformed our
fundamental understanding of how to build
broad-based prosperity. His ground-breaking research
illustrated the importance of technological advancement
to long-term growth, upending conventional thinking
and earning him a Nobel Prize. His conclusions emphasized
the importance of investing in education, health,
and scientific research, and millions of Americans
have benefited from the economic progress
that he helped to spark. Robert M. Solow’s
contributions have molded public opinion and
policy, and he continues to engage with the most
pressing economic questions of the day with his
incisive commentary on income inequality and
economic mobility. (applause) Military Aide:
Meryl Streep. (applause) One of our nation’s
greatest actors, Meryl Streep has an
unmatched ability to bring a character to life. Her performances have earned
her the most Academy Award nominations of any actor
in history and have given her audiences the chance to
see the world through someone else’s eyes. Whether portraying a famous
chef, a fashion editor, a Holocaust survivor,
or a prime minister, she conveys her
characters’ stories with empathy and dignity. Off screen, she brings
that same humanity to her advocacy for women,
education, and the arts. With depth, joy, and
discipline, Meryl Streep invites us to explore
the full range of the human experience,
one story at a time. (applause) Military Aide:
Marlo Thomas. (applause) For over half a
century, Marlo Thomas has been challenging
conventions and defying expectations. She broke barriers in
television with her iconic role in That Girl,
and lifted the voices of women as co-founder of the
Ms. Foundation for Women. Through stories and songs,
she reminds children that we are all “Free
to be You and Me,” and her work with St. Jude
Children’s Research Hospital has helped it become one
of the top children’s cancer hospitals in
the nation. Through her words,
deeds, and characters, Marlo Thomas has taught us
to be true to ourselves and to lead our lives with
confidence and compassion. (applause) Military Aide:
Stevie Wonder. (applause) One of the world’s most
gifted singer-songwriters, Stevland Morris, known to
the world as Stevie Wonder, crafts songs about joy and loss,
love and loneliness – with a musical style
entirely his own. He is celebrated for his
exuberant creativity, his virtuosity on
multiple instruments, and his mastery of a
wide range of genres. The results have gained
him millions of fans and 25 Grammy awards. Beyond his music, Stevie
Wonder has impacted the world through his philanthropy
and advocacy, especially his championing of people
with disabilities. Creating music in
the key of life, Stevie Wonder has brought
greater harmony to our nation. (applause) The President: Well, what
an extraordinary group. Let’s give them all a
big round of applause one more time. (applause) We thank all of them
for the gifts they’ve given to us, the incredible
performances, the incredible innovation, the incredible
ideas, the incredible expressions of
the human spirit. And not only have they
made the world better, but by following their
example, they make us a little bit better
every single day. We are truly
grateful to them. And on behalf of
Michelle and myself, please enjoy the reception. And God bless you all. Thank you. (applause)

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