Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony

The President:
Thank you so much. Everyone please be seated. And welcome to the White House. Some of you have
been here before. (laughter) This is one of the things that I
most look forward to every year. It’s a chance to meet with
— and, more importantly, honor — some of the most
extraordinary people in America — and around the world. President Kennedy once said,
during a tribute to the poet Robert Frost, that a nation
reveals itself not only by the men and women it produces, but
by the men and women that it honors; the people
that it remembers. I heartily agree. When you look at the men and
women who are here today, it says something about
who we are as a people. When we award this medal to
a Congressman John Lewis, it says that we aspire to
be a more just, more equal, more perfect union. When we award it
to a Jasper Johns, it says we value the original
and the imaginative. When we award it to
a Warren Buffett, it says we’d all like to be so
humble and wise — and maybe make a little money
along the way. (laughter) And when we award it to
former President George H.W. Bush, it says we celebrate an
extraordinary life of service and of sacrifice. This year’s Medal of Freedom
recipients reveal the best of who we are and who
we aspire to be. In 1970, John Adams and a
handful of unpaid attorneys and law students salvaged
some old desks and set up an environmental law
firm in New York City. For 36 years, John
sat at the same desk. But the group he co-founded,
the Natural Resources Defense Council, grew well beyond it. “Our first obligation is to the
environment,” John once said. “If people want to
protect the environment, we’ll support their efforts. If not, we’ll play hardball.” With more than 1
million members, NRDC has won landmark cases and
helped pass landmark laws to clean up our air and water,
protect our forests and wildlife, and keep
our climate safe. So Rolling Stone put it best:
“If the planet has a lawyer, it’s John Adams.” (laughter) As a girl, Marguerite Ann
Johnson endured trauma and abuse that actually led
her to stop speaking. But as a performer, and
ultimately a writer, a poet, Maya Angelou found her voice. It’s a voice that’s spoken to
millions, including my mother, which is why my
sister is named Maya. (laughter) By holding on, even
amid cruelty and loss, and then expanding to
a sense of compassion, an ability to love — by holding
on to her humanity — she has inspired countless others
who have known injustice and misfortune in their own lives. I won’t try to say it better
than Maya Angelou herself, who wrote that: History,
despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, and
if faced with courage, Need not be lived again. Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you. Give birth again To the dream. In 1942, an 11-year-old
boy from Omaha, Nebraska, invested his entire fortune in
six shares of City Services Preferred at $38 per share. The stock soon dropped sharply,
devastating his holdings. (laughter) But true to form, the
boy did not panic. He held those shares
until the stock rebounded, earning himself a small profit. Things got a little
bit better after that. (laughter) Today, we know Warren Buffett
not only as one of the world’s richest men, but also one of
the most admired and respected. Unmoved by financial fads, he
has doggedly sought out value, put his weight behind companies
with promise and demonstrated that integrity isn’t
just a good trait — it is good for business. And yet, for all the
money he’s earned, you don’t see Warren Buffett
wearing fancy suits or driving fancy cars. Instead, you see him devoting
the vast majority of his wealth to those around the world
who are suffering, or sick, or in need of help. And he uses his stature as
a leader to press others of great means to do the same. A philanthropist is
a lover of humanity, and there’s no word
that fits Warren better. I should point out he’s so
thrifty I had to give him a White House tie — (laughter) — the last time he
came here to visit. His was looking a
little shredded. (laughter) So then when Bill Gates
came, he wanted one, too. (laughter) It has been noted that
Jasper Johns’ work, playing off familiar images,
have transfixed people around the world. Historians will tell you that
he helped usher in the artistic movements that would define the
latter half of the 20th century. Many would say he is one of the
greatest artists of our time. And yet, of his own
efforts he has simply said, “I’m just trying to find
a way to make pictures.” Just trying to find a
way to make pictures. Like great artists before
him, Jasper Johns pushed the boundaries of what art could
be and challenged others to test their own assumptions. He didn’t do it for fame, he
didn’t do it for success — although he earned both. As he said, “I assumed that
everything would lead to complete failure, but I
decided that it didn’t matter — that would be my life.” (laughter) We are richer as a
society because it was. And Jasper, you’ve
turned out fine. (laughter) When you are among the
youngest of nine children, you develop a strong
sense of empathy. When those children
are the Kennedys, you also develop a strong
set of diplomatic skills just to be heard. Both traits helped Jean Kennedy
Smith follow her siblings into public service. When her brother,
President Kennedy, visited Ireland in 1963,
he promised he’d be back in the springtime. Thirty years later, it was left
to Jean to return for him. As President Clinton’s
ambassador to Ireland, Jean was as vital as
she was unconventional, helping brave men and women
find the courage to see past the scars of violence and
mistrust and come together to forge a lasting peace. Touched by experiences
in her own life, Jean also founded
the VSA program, helping people with disabilities
discover the joys of learning through the arts, changing the
lives of those it has served. And today, her mission has
spread to more than 50 countries and touched millions of lives
— ensuring that the family business remains alive and well. By the time she was 21, Gerda
Klein had spent six years living under Nazi rule — three of
them in concentration camps. Her parents and brother
had been taken away. Her best friend had died in
her arms during a 350-mile death march. And she weighed only 68 pounds
when she was found by American forces in an abandoned
bicycle factory. But Gerda survived. She married the soldier
who rescued her. And ever since — as an author,
a historian and a crusader for tolerance — she has taught the
world that it is often in our most hopeless moments that we
discover the extent of our strength and the
depth of our love. “I pray you never stand at any
crossroads in your own lives,” she says, “but if you do, if
the darkness seems so total, if you think there is
no way out, remember, never ever give up.” That’s a quote that would be
familiar to our next honoree. There’s a quote inscribed
over a doorway in Nashville, where students first refused to
leave lunch counters 51 years ago this February. And the quote said,
“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” It’s a question John Lewis has
been asking his entire life. It’s what led him back to the
Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma after he had already been
beaten within an inch of his life days before. It’s why, time and again, he
faced down death so that all of us could share equally
in the joys of life. It’s why all these years later,
he is known as the Conscience of the United States Congress,
still speaking his mind on issues of justice and equality. 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. An optometrist from New York,
Tom Little could have pursued a lucrative career. Instead, he guided — he was
guided by his faith and he set out to heal the poorest of
the poor in Afghanistan. For 30 years, amid
invasion and civil war, the terror of the Taliban,
the spread of insurgency, he and his wife Libby helped
bring Afghans, literally, the miracle of sight. Last summer, Tom and his team of
doctors and nurses were ambushed and senselessly murdered. Today, we remember and honor
Dr. Tom Little — a humanitarian in the truest sense of the word;
a man who not only dedicated his life to others, but who lived
that lesson of Scripture: “Greater love hath
no man than this, that a man lay down his
life for his friends.” Yo-Yo Ma has been a concert
cellist since the age of five. Despite being a late bloomer — (laughter) — he went on to record over 75
albums and win 16 Grammys — which means I’m
only 14 behind him. (laughter) While Yo-Yo could have just
settled for being the world’s greatest cellist, he’s said that
even greater than his passion for music is his
passion for people. And I can testify to this. There are few people you’ll meet
with just the exuberance and joy that Yo-Yo possesses. And so he’s spent much of his
life traveling the world, training and mentoring
thousands of students, from Lebanon and Korea
to the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. A member of my Committee on
the Arts and the Humanities, he has been named a Messenger
of Peace by the United Nations, and we understand why. In his words, “When we enlarge
our view of the world, we deepen our understanding
of our own lives.” For Sylvia Mendez, a lifelong
quest for equality began when she was just eight years old. Outraged that their daughter had
to attend a segregated school, Sylvia’s parents linked arms
with other Latino families to fight injustice in a
California federal court, a case that would pave
the way for Brown verses Board of Education. The next year, when a classmate
taunted Sylvia saying that Mexicans didn’t belong there,
she went home in tears, begging to leave the school. Her mother wouldn’t have it. She told Sylvia, “Don’t
you realize that’s why we went to court? You are just as good as he is.” And Sylvia took
those words to heart. And ever since, she has made it
her mission to spread a message of tolerance and opportunity to
children of all backgrounds and all walks of life. Growing up in
communist East Germany, Angela Merkel
dreamed of freedom. And when the Wall finally
crumbled and Germany was reunited, she broke
barriers of her own, becoming the first East German
— and the first woman — to become chancellor of Germany. To America, Chancellor Merkel
and the country she leads are among our closest allies. To me, she is a trusted
global partner and a friend. To people around the world,
the story of Angela Merkel is an inspiration. “Everything is possible,” she’s
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.” Chancellor Merkel
isn’t here today. She’ll be visiting me for a
visit — an official visit soon, and so I look forward to
presenting her the award when she comes. Stan Musial — his brilliance
could come in blinding bursts; hitting five home runs in a
single day’s doubleheader; leading the league
in singles, doubles, triples and RBIs over a single
season; three World Series; first-ballot Hall of Famer;
worthy of one of the greatest nicknames in sports
— “Stan the Man.” (laughter) My grandfather was
Stan, by the way, so I used to call him
“The Man” too, Stan. (laughter) Stan Musial made that brilliance
burn for two decades. Stan matched his
hustle with humility. He retired with 17 records —
even as he missed a season in his prime to serve his
country in the Navy. He was the first player to
make — get this — $100,000. (laughter) Even more shocking, he asked for
a pay cut when he didn’t perform up to his own expectations. You can imagine that
happening today. (laughter) Stan remains, to this
day, an icon, untarnished; a beloved pillar
of the community; a gentleman you’d want
your kids to emulate. “I hope I’ve given baseball
nearly as much as I’ve gotten from it,” Stan wrote
in his memoirs, knocking it out of the
park one more time. When Bill Russell
was in junior high, he was cut from his
basketball team. (laughter) He got better after that. (laughter) He led the University of San
Francisco to two championships. In 13 seasons with
the Boston Celtics, he won 11 championships — a
record unmatched in any sport. Won two while also serving
as the team’s coach. And so happens, he also was the
first African American ever to hold such a position as
a coach in a Major League sports team of any sort. More than any
athlete of his era, Bill Russell came to
define the word “winner.” And yet, whenever someone looks
up at all 6’9″ of Bill Russell — I just did — (laughter) — I always feel small
next to him — and asks, “Are you a basketball player?” — surprisingly, he gets
this more than you think, this question — (laughter) — he says, “No.” He says, “That’s what I
do, that’s not what I am. I’m not a basketball player. I am a man who
plays basketball.” Bill Russell, the man, is
someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men. He marched with King;
he stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused
to serve the black Celtics, he refused to play in
the scheduled game. He endured insults
and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on
making the teammates who he loved better players, and made
possible the success of so many who would follow. And I hope that one day,
in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a
statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but
Bill Russell the man. The Bronx-born son
of Irish immigrants, John Sweeney was
shaped by three things. His family — his
mother was a maid, his father was a bus driver
— instilled in him that fundamentally American idea
that through hard work, we can make of our
lives what we will. The church taught him our
obligations to ourselves and one another. And as a child, he saw that by
banding together in a union, we can accomplish great things
that we can’t accomplish alone. John devoted his career
to the labor movement, adding working folks to its
ranks and fighting for fair working conditions
and fair wages. As the head of the AFL-CIO, he
was responsible for dozens of unions with millions
of working families. Family. Faith. Fidelity to the common good. These are the values that
make John Sweeney who he is; values at the heart of a labor
movement that has helped build the world’s greatest
middle class. And finally, we recognize
our last recipient, not simply for the years he
spent as our 41st President. We honor George Herbert Walker
Bush for service to America that spanned nearly 70 years. 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. As President, he expanded
America’s promise to new immigrants and people
with disabilities. He reduced nuclear weapons. He built a broad international
coalition to expel a dictator from Kuwait. When democratic revolutions
swept across Eastern Europe, it was the steady diplomatic
hand of President Bush that made possible an achievement once
thought impossible — ending the Cold War without firing a shot. I would add that, like the
remarkable Barbara Bush, his humility and his decency
reflects the very best of the American spirit. Those of you who know
him, this is a gentleman. Inspiring citizens to
become “points of light” in service to others. Teaming up with a one-time
political opponent to champion relief for the victims
of the Asian tsunami, the Hurricane Katrina. And then, just to cap it
off, well into the 80’s, he decides to jump
out of airplanes — (laughter) — because, as he
explains, “it feels good.” These are the recipients of
the 2010 Medal of Freedom. So now, it is my great pleasure
and my great honor to present them with their medals. (applause) Military Aide:
John H. Adams. At a time when contaminated
waterways and polluted air threatened too many of
our communities, John H. Adams co-founded the Natural
Resources Defense Council to encourage responsible
stewardship of our natural resources. A staunch defender of the
wonders of our planet, he served as executive
director and, later, as president of the NRDC,
challenging Americans to live up to our responsibilities to leave
something better to our children with an urgency
matched by few others. John Adams’ decades-long
commitment to safeguarding the Earth has left our air purer,
our water cleaner and our planet healthier for
generations to come. (the medal is presented) (applause) Dr. Maya Angelou. Out of a youth marked
by pain and injustice, Dr. Maya Angelou rose with an
unbending determination to fight for civil rights and inspire
every one of us to recognize and embrace the possibility
and potential we each hold. With her soaring poetry,
towering prose and mastery of a range of art forms, Dr. Angelou
has spoken to the conscience of our nation. Her soul-stirring words have
taught us how to reach across division and honor the
beauty of our world. (the medal is presented) (applause) Warren E. Buffett. As a world-renowned investor
and philanthropist, Warren E. Buffett’s business acumen is
matched only by his dedication to improving the
lives of others. He is a co-founder
of The Giving Pledge, an organization that encourages
wealthy Americans to donate at least 50 percent of their
wealth to philanthropic causes. Warren Buffett’s example of
generosity and compassion has shown us the power of one
individual’s determination and inspired countless women
and men to help make our world a brighter place. (the medal is presented) (applause) The Honorable George
Herbert Walker Bush. (applause) From his time as a decorated
Navy pilot to his years in the White House as the 41st
President of the United States, President George Herbert Walker
Bush has led a life marked by a profound commitment
to serving others. As President, he upheld the
American value of liberty during a time of renewal and promise. As a private citizen, he has
united Americans in times of crisis, lending his tireless
efforts to men and women whose lives have been
upended by disaster. Over the arc of his life,
President Bush has served our nation as a
tremendous force for good, and we proudly salute him for
his unwavering devotion to our country and our world. (the medal is presented) (applause) Jasper Johns. Bold and iconic, the work of
Jasper Johns has left lasting impressions on
countless Americans. With nontraditional
materials and methods, he has explored themes
of identity, perception, and patriotism. By asking us to
reexamine the familiar, his work has sparked the
minds of creative thinkers around the world. Jasper Johns’ innovative
creations helped shape the pop, minimal and conceptual
art movements, and the United States honors him
for his profound influence on generations of artists. (the medal is presented) (applause) (applause) Gerda Weissmann Klein. Gerda Weissmann Klein’s life is
a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit. A Holocaust survivor, she was
separated from her parents and sent to a series of
Nazi labor camps. In 1945, she was one of a few
survivors among those forced to undergo a 350-mile death march
to avoid the progress of liberating Allied forces. From tragedy to triumph, she and
her husband proudly started the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation
to promote tolerance, respect and empowerment of
students throughout the world. By sharing her stories and
encouraging others to see themselves in one another, Gerda
Klein has helped to advance understanding among all people. (the medal is presented) (applause) The Honorable John R. Lewis. From his activism in the civil
rights movement to his nearly 25 years in the House
of Representatives, John R. Lewis has dedicated his
life to shattering barriers and fighting injustice. The son of sharecroppers from
Alabama, he rose with courage, fortitude and purpose to
organize the first student sit-ins and the
earliest freedom rides. The youngest speaker at the
1963 March on Washington, a fearless advocate and a
distinguished member of Congress, John Lewis has earned
our lasting gratitude for a lifetime dedicated to the
pursuit of equality and justice for all. (the medal is presented) (applause) Elizabeth Little, accepting
on behalf of her husband, Dr. Thomas Emmett Little. Dr. Thomas Emmett Little was an
optometrist who devoted his life and skills to those in need. Starting in the 1970s, Dr.
Little and his wife lived largely in Afghanistan in order
to provide vision care to the people of that nation. Even as they dedicated their
lives to healing others, Dr. Little and nine of his
team members were murdered in Afghanistan in 2010. Our nation mourns the loss of
these humanitarians who paid the ultimate price in
pursuit of their ideals, and we look to Dr. Little’s
example of generosity and goodwill so we can better know
the meaning of sacrifice and the necessity of peace. (the medal is presented) (applause) Yo-Yo Ma. Recognized as one of the
world’s greatest musicians, Yo-Yo Ma’s talents know no
boundaries of genre or culture. Since performing at the White
House for President Kennedy at the age of seven, he has
recorded more than 75 albums, won more than a dozen Grammy
awards and established himself as one of our nation’s most
acclaimed and respected artists. His music has bound us together
and captured our imagination, and the United States proudly
honors this prolific cellist and ambassador for the arts. (the medal is presented) (applause) Sylvia Mendez. Sylvia Mendez was thrust to the
forefront of the civil rights movement when she
was just a child. Denied entry to the Westminster
School because of her Mexican heritage, she sought justice
and her subsequent legal case, Mendez verses Westminster,
effectively ended segregation as a matter of law in California. The arguments in that case
catalyzed the desegregation of our schools and prevailed in
the landmark case Brown verses Board of Education, forever
changing our nation. Today, Sylvia Mendez continues
to share her remarkable story and advocate for excellence
and equality in classrooms across America. (the medal is presented) (applause) Stanley F. Musial. Stanley F. Musial represents the
best of American sports icons. His name is synonymous with
the St. Louis Cardinals, the team on which he played
for his entire 22-year career. A perennial all-star and
three-time Most Valuable Player, he won accolades as a player and
championships as a teammate. Nicknamed “Stan the Man”
Musial, he played the game with unrivaled passion, and his
humility and decency remain a model for all young
Americans to this day. (the medal is presented) (applause) William F. Russell. (laughter) Basketball was a different
sport before William F. Russell donned a uniform. With unmatched skill, he
led the Boston Celtics to an unparalleled string of titles
and earned the distinction of being named the National
Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player five times. He broke down barriers
on and off the court, becoming basketball’s first
African American coach and serving as a passionate
advocate for civil rights. Bill Russell can reflect with
pride on helping change the culture of a sport and
the course of our nation. (the medal is presented) (applause) The Honorable Jean
Kennedy Smith. The eighth of nine children
to Joseph and Rose Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith joined the
family business of helping her fellow Americans in
improving our world. In 1974, she founded
Very Special Arts, a nonprofit organization that
promotes the artistic talents of young people living
with disabilities. On the international stage, Jean
Kennedy Smith played a pivotal role in the peace process in
Northern Ireland while serving as United States
ambassador to Ireland. With intelligence, compassion,
creativity and grace, Jean Kennedy Smith has
contributed volumes to her family’s outstanding legacy
of service to our country. (the medal is presented) (applause) John J. Sweeney. As a champion for
the American worker, John J. Sweeney has
strengthened our families, our economy and our country. The son of Irish immigrants, he
worked his way up in the labor movement, serving as president
of the Service Employees International Union and
president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress
of Industrial Organizations, all the while reaffirming our
nation’s commitment to rewarding the enduring values of hard
work and responsibility. The United States proudly honors
John Sweeney for a lifetime of courageous service on
behalf of working people. (the medal is presented) (applause) The President:
I know that people try to
observe decorum when they’re here in the White House — (laughter) — but I’d welcome everybody
to stand and acknowledge these extraordinary men and women of
the 2011 [sic] Medal of Freedom. (applause) All right, everybody. Now you can see why
I love this day, and I hope everyone
has a wonderful time during the reception. Thank you so much
for your attendance. And again, to our honorees,
thanks for setting such an extraordinary example
for all of us. Thank you very much. (applause)

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