Obama to Award Medal of Freedom to 16

Winners include, top: the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Sandra Day O'Connor; Chita Rivera and Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Winners include, top: the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Sandra Day O'Connor; Chita Rivera and Sen. Edward Kennedy. (John Amis - AP)
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By Ruth McCann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

On the campaign trail last year, candidate Barack Obama became an honorary member of the Crow tribe of American Indians after meeting its chief, Joe Medicine Crow, 95. The tribe's only surviving war chief, Medicine Crow fought in World War II, earning distinction for stealing Nazi horses. And on Aug. 12, at the White House, he will become one of 16 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Yesterday, Obama announced his selections for the nation's highest civilian honor, first awarded by President Harry S. Truman in 1945 to honor WWII vets. This year's recipients -- who include former Irish president Mary Robinson, deceased gay activist Harvey Milk, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and physicist Stephen Hawking -- represent a vast range of causes and achievements, and reflect the diversity that the president often champions.

"Each has been an agent of change," Obama said in a statement. "Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way."

Miami physician and medal awardee Pedro José Greer Jr., speaking by phone between visits with patients at his clinic for the homeless, said the president "found a group -- and I'll exclude me from this as I say this -- a very diverse, extremely intellectual group."

And this choice, Greer says, reflects well on Obama. "He does what we have always expected a president to do -- to be intellectual, to be forward-thinking, and to be extremely thoughtful," said the founder of Camillus Health Concern.

This year's roster of honorees comprises six women and 10 men; four are non-U.S. citizens. Bipartisanship also seemed to be a theme, as embodied by Democratic icon Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and the late Republican congressman Jack Kemp. On the civil rights side the recipients also include race boundary breakers Sidney Poitier and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Montgomery bus boycott organizer.

Then there's medical activism and humanitarianism, as represented by Greer, breast cancer activist Nancy Goodman Brinker, geneticist Janet Davison Rowley and micro-loan pioneer Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh. Powerful women are on the list, including former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Ireland's first female president, Mary Robinson.

Puerto Rican entertainer Chita Rivera, too, was among the nominees, joining the ranks of past celebrity winners like Julia Child, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, John Wayne and Aretha Franklin.

While President George W. Bush encountered some criticism when he awarded the medal to such Iraq war power players as then-Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, former CIA director George Tenet and occupation viceroy L. Paul Bremer, Obama hasn't included any particularly controversial choices in his first picks.

Obama has, however, awarded medals to gay rights activist Harvey Milk (murdered in 1978) and the openly lesbian tennis star Billie Jean King. (Playwright Tennessee Williams, whom President Jimmy Carter honored in 1980, is among the few previous prominent gay recipients.)

When Nancy Goodman Brinker, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary and founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, received a call last week from a woman who claimed to be from the White House, Brinker assumed she was being prank-called, until the caller managed to convince her otherwise.

"You can imagine," Brinker said, "the moment when you're frozen, and honestly you can't even speak." Then her thoughts turned immediately to her sister, Susan Komen, who died of breast cancer. "This is the 30th [anniversary] of her death, so I just started crying and thinking about all the things we've done over the years in her name, and how honored I am that it is still being done in her name."

Asked his reaction, Greer said, "Besides shock and surprise? Shock and surprise! I'm extremely honored and humbled by it, but still shocked and surprised. . . . And I hope I can live up to it. I will make every single effort to do that."

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