Up close, the Medal of Freedom is not much bigger than a quarter. Gold and threaded with a blue silk ribbon, it seems to hang heavy upon its wearers.

Maybe that's because the recipients of this medal, the highest honor the nation bestows on civilians, try to stand straighter while wearing it. Perhaps it isn't the weight of the medal at all but the weight of the years it took the wearer to get to this point in his or her life, to triumph over all the struggles, to fight the Goliaths.

Eight people, some called them heroes and heroines, brave and unbent souls, once fiery but older now, got their medals yesterday in the East Room of the White House: Lloyd M. Bentsen, Edgar M. Bronfman Sr., Evy Dubrow, Sister M. Isolina Ferre, Gerald R. Ford, Oliver White Hill, Max Kampelman and Edgar Wayburn. (Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter received their medals Monday in Atlanta.)

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton told the audience that the award celebrates this country's "democratic ideals" and recognizes people who have made the "nation and our world" better.

"Barbara Jordan once said, 'What the people want is very simple: They want an America as good as its promise,' " she noted. The 10 people honored made "good on that promise."

President Clinton next stepped to the lectern. First he offered his condolences to the families of those wounded in Tuesday's shooting at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles.

"What we heard about the suspect and his motives is deeply disturbing. Nothing could be further from what we honor today," he said.

Then he read his speech and awarded the first honor: to another president.

Exactly 25 years and two days ago, Gerald R. Ford stood in the East Room raising his right hand, becoming president of a country revulsed in the aftermath of Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon.

Yesterday, Ford came back to the East Room, older, thinner, somehow smaller as he sat next to the first lady.

"Gerald Ford ended a long national nightmare" when he took the presidential oath, Clinton said.

Clinton summoned a colonel to read the declaration, then turned to face Ford. The former president, in a blue pinstriped suit, stood. Clinton wrapped his arms around him and fastened on the Medal of Freedom.

Ford, neither smiling nor frowning, wearing a face that seemed to reveal nothing, turned to the audience. The audience stood to give thunderous applause, and Ford acknowledged it, then sat down.

The ceremony was grand and brief, steeped in valor, diversity, history and pride. Under massive chandeliers, draped in heavy gold curtains, the room was crowded with dignitaries--Madeleine K. Albright, Henry Kissinger, Alan Greenspan--and regular people who did what they could to change the world.

There was Sister Ferre, who fought to "empower individuals and families by helping them recognize their dignity and abilities," Clinton said. She was recognized internationally in the late 1950s and '60s for mediating gang wars in Brooklyn.

And Dubrow, a union activist who for more than 50 years rattled the halls of Congress to improve domestic labor conditions. She fought to increase the minimum wage, health care benefits and equity in pay for women.

Kampelman, a lawyer, negotiator and diplomat, worked as a human rights champion fighting to undermine "the pillars of communism" and to lay the groundwork for nuclear arms reduction between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Wayburn, a five-time president and member of the board of the Sierra Club, pushed for the expansion of California's Mount Tamalpais State Park and helped safeguard other wilderness areas from commercial development.

Bronfman, as president of the World Jewish Congress, "fought persecution, helped preserve Jewish heritage and struggled to secure justice for victims of the Holocaust."

Bentsen, Clinton's first treasury secretary, was honored for his support of civil rights and his work bringing "greater opportunity and unprecedented prosperity to our country." In a wheelchair, he received the award in one of his first public appearances after a stroke.

And there was Oliver White Hill, a lawyer who along with Thurgood Marshall pressed the case for school desegregation, litigating one of the cases that became Brown v. Board of Education. In 1948, Hill became the first African American politician since Reconstruction to be elected to the city council in Richmond.

After the speeches ended and the room emptied, Ford spoke with reporters outside. He said he was happy to be back at the White House and honored to receive the Medal of Freedom.

"Betty got the award from George Bush about nine years ago. I'm glad to end all that discrimination," he said, smiling.

Somebody asked him what his reaction was to the shootings in Los Angeles. "I'm getting damned tired of it happening," he said.

Then he turned to walk back to the White House.