"This is one of the few times that Admiral Rickover has walked toward me that I did not tremble," Jimmy Carter joked.
Everbody laughed -- or almost everybody. Old Sobersides was Hyman Rickover, 80, sometimes called the father of the nuclear-powered submarine. The remark helped lighten a historic occasion yesterday that a daughter of a former president, Luci Johnson, later described as a memorable opportunity "to meet some of the greatest faces who have walked across the stage of Americana."
The ranged from the U.S. Navy admiral to an author, an actor and an archbishop, to a biologist and a bird watcher, a dramatist and a dancer, a photographer, a poet, a president, a singer, a senator and a civil rights leader sometimes called the "101st senator."
"In their varying ways," said the president of the United States, "they have aroused our rightful indignation at injustice and intolerance, at indifference and ignorance. They made us look to the birds in flight, down into the depths of the ocean, and inward to probe the cruelty and comedy, the courage and compassion of the human heart."
In all, 14 Presidential Medals of Freedom were presented yesterday on the South Lawn of the White House, four posthumously. The slightly nervous and awed recipients heard Jimmy Carter tell an audience of more than 200 relatives, friends and Washington officials that "because of them our nation is a little more secure, a little less careless, a little more literate, a little more loving."
Carter sounded somewhat in awe himself at times as he introduced the recipients: photographer Ansel Adams; dancer Lucia Chase; Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos; civil rights leader Clarence M. Mitchell Jr.; ornithologist and author Roger Tory Peterson; Adm. Hyman Rickover; soprano Beverly Sills; poet, novelist and critic Robert Penn Warren; author Eudora Welty; playwright Tennessee Williams and , posthumously, scientist Rachel Carson; Vice President and Sen. Hubert Humphrey; President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and actor John Wayne.
"All of these are famous people," Carter said, "but probably the most famous of us all, including the one who is reading the citations, is John Wayne, an example of true American grit and determination. . . the quintessential patriot."
The award was first given by Harry S. Truman during World War II to honor meritorious nonmilitary contributions to national security and world peace. Carter has bestowed the award on four other persons.
"Ansel Adams, Carter said, has been "visionary in his efforts to preserve this country's wild and scenic areas, both on film and on earth."
Carson, author of "the Silent Spring," was " never silent herself in the face of destructive trends," and she "fed a spring of awareness across America and beyond."
Chase, "a one-woman show," devoted her lifework as dancer and later ballet director of the American Ballet Theatre "to sustaining the vitality of American dance."
Humphrey "ennobled the political process," said Carter.
Archibishop lakovos, "a progressive religious leader concerned with human rights and the ecumenical movements," put into practice what he has long preached.
Lyndon Johnson "did more than any American of his time to break the chains of injustice, illiteracy, poverty and sickness."
Mitchell, "the 101st senator," helped "translate into law the protests and aspirations of millions consigned too long to second-class citizenship."
Peterson "awakened in millions across this land a fondness for nature's other two-legged creatures."
Rickover, whom Carter said had influenced him more profoundly than anyone except his late father, "exemplifies the American belief that freedom and responisibilty are inseparable."
Sills is "a master" of all her arts, first as a singer and now as general director of the New York Opera Company.
Warren, "one of America's greatest men of letters of the 20th century," transformed the teaching of literature and writing in the United States.
Wayne "was both an example and symbol of true American grit and determination."
Welty's fiction "illuminates the human condition," while her essays "explore mind and heart, literary and oral tradition."
Williams has dramatized "the eternal conflicts between body and soul, youth and death, love and despair."
Later, as the honorees and other guests mingled in the East Room waiting to shake hands with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and Vice President and Mrs. Walter Mondale, Clarence Mitchell said he liked to think he, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey "were all instruments in the hands of God" in the civil-rights legislation they, as a combination, helped bring about. Mitchell said: "If we hadn't been around, I'm sure there would have been replacements."
Carter's civil-rights record, Mitchell said, has been "tremendous -- I'm so grateful to him for many things, but most especially for desegreating the federal bench, particularly in the South. That's a thing that will have a constructive impact on this country for generations to come."
Robert Penn Warren said he was "speechless" at being among those honored -- "I have to have a typewriter to think." He said he had been surprised by his selection, "but it's always nice to win a raffle -- I could say they used good judgment, but I'd rather think of it as a raffle. There are an awful lot of good writers strugglng today. To be considered [for the award] is a nice thing, but to get it is bound to be a raffle."
Roger Christie accepted the medal for his adoptive mother, Rachel Carson, and Lady Bird Johnson, Muriel Humphrey and Pilar Wayne accepted the medals for their husbands.
Pilar Wayne, accompanied by four of her and John Wayne's seven children, said her only regret was that the late actor was not present to receive the medal himself.
"He was a perfect gentleman, the most humble man and probably had the most beautiful insights I have ever seen in a human being." Married 24 years and separated for the last five of them, she said they had always planned to get back together "after the next location -- but you know, three months here and three months there and you had to stay home when you had children."
Hyman Rickover thought it was "sad" that Carter gave him so much credit. "He [Carter] could have done better."
Ornithologist Peterson thought that recognition outside his profession may mean "you've broken the sound barrier in some ways to other people." And he indicated that the rewards may have worked both ways.
"There are 40 million bird watchers," he said. "That would mean 40 million votes, wouldn't it?"