WASHINGTON -- Muhammad Ali, his hands shaking and eyes reflecting the White House chandeliers, accepted the nation's highest civilian award from President Bush on Wednesday.
Bush called him "the Greatest of All Time" and "a man of peace," and tied the Presidential Medal of Freedom around the former heavyweight champion's neck.
It was Ali's first public appearance in months, six days after undergoing back surgery in Atlanta. Wobbly from the effects of Parkinson's disease, the 63-year-old fighter at times had to applaud with his left hand clenched in a fist, and now and then appeared to have trouble sitting up in his seat.
But when it came time to accept his medal, Ali stood proudly in his black suit and red, yellow and black tie, embraced the president and whispered in his ear. The president pretended to take a jab at Ali. The champ responded by pointing to his own head and moving his finger in a circle around his ear. The crowd laughed. When he sat down, Ali made the same gesture again.
Ali was one of 14 luminaries to receive the award Wednesday. On stage, he sat next to actress Carol Burnett. Other winners included golfer Jack Nicklaus, singer Aretha Franklin and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
Calling Ali "a fierce fighter and a man of peace," Bush said Ali's fighting style would be studied for years but defy imitation.
"The real mystery, I guess, is how he stayed so pretty," Bush said. Mugging for the crowd, Ali lifted his eyebrows and ran his hands over his face. The audience of dignitaries, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and White House adviser Karl Rove, laughed. Bush added: "It probably had to do with his beautiful soul."
Standing together on the East Room dais, Bush and Ali made a historically curious pair. During the Vietnam War, their politics couldn't have been further apart: Bush supported the war, spending his eligible years in Texas and Alabama with the Air National Guard.
Ali, as a conscientious objector, refused to serve and was sentenced to jail for avoiding the draft, although the Supreme Court overturned the conviction. Outspoken and proud of his beliefs, he became a hero to the black nationalist movement. In 1975, he was featured in Parliament's "Chocolate City," a funk vision of black power that prophesied: "Don't be surprised if Ali is in the White House ... and Miss Aretha Franklin, the first lady."
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Ky., in 1942, Ali learned to fight after having his bicycle stolen as boy. He retired in 1981 with a 56-5 record, 37 knockouts and a gold medal from the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, having successfully defended his title 19 times.
He changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam as a follower of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. He later converted to Sunni Islam.
U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, a Republican from Louisville, remembered listening to Ali's fights as a girl.
"We all huddled around the radio and waited after each round to hear what he had done and what the commentators thought," she said. "He was such a great sports hero, but besides that he spent a lot of time as a U.N. ambassador for peace, trying to raise awareness of poverty in many of the poorest of poor countries."
On Nov. 19, Ali plans to attend the Louisville opening of the Muhammad Ali Center, a $75 million museum celebrating his life.
"It certainly is a wonderful if not coincidental time in Muhammad's life, a time of both receiving and giving," said the center's director, Michael Fox, who attended the White House ceremony.
Some bad blood remains from the Vietnam era. Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis said two members complained to him that the anti-war icon was receiving a high award from the president.
But Davis said the VFW itself has moved on.
"He (refused to serve) for religious principles, and he paid the price. ... And what he did in his later life, he was an excellent representative of the United States of America."