Sidney Poitier, Sen. Ted Kennedy Among 16 Who Receive Medal of Freedom
Thursday, August 13, 2009
At his first Medal of Freedom conferral, President Obama ran a tight ship of a ceremony, which began slightly after 3 p.m. and clocked in at about 40 minutes' worth of speechifying and medal-bestowing in the glittering East Room, the largest room in the White House. This year, actor Sidney Poitier, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Broadway star Chita Rivera, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and former Irish president Mary Robinson were among the 16 who received the nation's highest civilian honor.
Although the president spoke to the recipients and their enthused crowd of guests for about 20 minutes before breaking out the medals, his comments betrayed very little about his personal feelings toward (or relationships with) any of the honorees he'd selected. The silence signaled humility, and, of course, diplomacy: Robinson, for example, was the object of enmity outside the building, as supporters of Israel had deemed her undeserving after a particular rough career moment when a human-rights conference she helmed in 2001 was dominated by attacks on Jews and Israel.
In the afternoon ceremony, Obama praised Robinson as "a crusader for women and those without a voice in Ireland," saying she "shone a light on human suffering" during her work on human rights and hunger. A military aide read her citation, which praised her for "urging citizens and nations to make common cause for justice."
The president did get personal on a few occasions, his own subtly conveyed intimacy never upstaging, say, the exuberance of tennis star Billie Jean King, who entered the East Room with a victorious pump of her fist and a mouthed "Yessssss!" In the president's estimation, King gave "everyone, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, including my two daughters, a chance to compete both on the court and in life." Upon receiving her medal, she gave it a kiss and flashed the audience a grin.
The president's introductory remarks (smoothly delivered, apparently without written notes) continued in this manner, bowing more to the medal recipients' achievements than to his own experiences with them. After pronouncements were pronounced, Obama clasped medals around 16 necks, engaging in a great deal of hugging, cheek-kissing, whispering and back-patting -- a prolonged bout of physical affection that the recipients happily returned.
Guests mingled festively beforehand in the surreal grandeur of the White House foyer, where a clutch of musicians in red uniforms with brass buttons provided background sounds ("I Could Have Danced All Night" and "Night and Day"). At an open bar in the corner, a bartender presided over various liquors, glasses of champagne and a few beer bottles.
The recipients' guests were ushered in from the foyer and seated on delicate, gold-painted chairs. The Kennedy women looked polished, the Poitier guests chatted happily with photographers and Tutu's friends turned out in a fabulous array of colorful, voluminous hats rivaled only by the feather headdresses worn by guests of Joseph Medicine Crow, the only surviving Plains Indian war chief, whom Obama met on the campaign trail.
As the honorees entered, the audience greeted each with whoops and cheers (Sidney Poitier got a round of applause that nearly rivaled the president's). Fuchsia-salmony clothing, apparently the order of the day, appeared on Robinson, Tutu, breast cancer activist Nancy Brinker and former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
With Michelle Obama (in a sleeveless bright red dress) looking on from the front row, the president declared the honorees to be "agents of change" who, in his words, embody the conviction that "our lives are what we make of them; that no barriers of race, gender or physical infirmity can restrain the human spirit; and that the truest test of a person's life is what we do for one another."
The assembled crowd was clearly eager to find merriment wherever possible. Hearty laughter followed the president's opener for Chita Rivera: "Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero knows that adversity comes with a difficult name." Another giggly moment: Medicine Crow commandeered the podium -- an initiative only he seized -- and launched into a joyous acceptance speech, only to be gracefully ushered back to his seat by the president. Acceptance speeches, one notes, were a part of Bill Clinton's medal rites, but in the Obama era have been ushered out.
But merriment often gave way to reflective silence when the president spoke of honorees who were sick or deceased, including the ailing Sen. Kennedy, whose oldest daughter, Kara, accepted the medal on her father's behalf. Stuart Milk attended the ceremony in the place of his uncle, Harvey Milk, a prominent California gay rights activist who was shot and killed by former city supervisor Dan White in 1978. And Joanne Kemp, widow of Rep. Jack Kemp, appeared in her husband's stead.
Obama stood behind each medal recipient (many of them teary) and clasped the gold, circular, star-emblazoned medal (on a blue ribbon) around their necks. He handed medals in demure boxes to those who were accepting them on another's behalf.
Other honorees included Pedro José Greer, a Miami doctor who has orchestrated medical treatment for many of the city's homeless; British physicist Stephen Hawking; the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the civil rights leader; cancer researcher Janet Davidson Rowley; and micro-loan pioneer Muhammad Yunus.
At no point did the external rumblings about Robinson's controversial stewardship of a human-rights conference invade the room. Among the critics of Robinson's award was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which described Robinson's time on the United Nations Human Rights Commission as "deeply flawed, and her conduct marred by extreme, one-sided anti-Israel sentiment." AIPAC called on the Obama administration to "firmly, fully and publicly repudiate her views on Israel and her long public record of hostility and one-sided bias against the Jewish state."
Criticism mounted over the past few weeks as bipartisan critics, including Reps. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) and Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), added volume. Asked on Wednesday whether the president, after the outpouring of criticism, had any second thoughts about giving Robinson the highest civilian medal, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said no.
"I think the president is recognizing her for her leadership on women's rights and equal rights. And as I've said before, he doesn't agree with each of her statements, but she's certainly somebody who should be honored," Gibbs said.
In the East Room, Robinson showed only hints of stress; even as the Irish leader tripped slightly when entering, she managed a shy smile as Poitier clasped her hand to steady her. Tears and cheers made the afternoon an emotionally lively one that concluded with the president's exiting as suddenly as he had arrived, taking the 16 with him. As the president swept out, the band struck up again, and partying resumed, a guest of Sidney Poitier remained slightly stunned. "Oh my God," she said of the president. "Gorgeous."