Aretha Franklin was teary-eyed, Carol Burnett was teasing, Alan Greenspan was reliably taciturn, and "The Greatest of All Time" stole the show when President Bush bestowed the Medal of Freedom on them and 10 others in a White House ceremony yesterday.
Bush, who appeared almost playful, fastened the heavy medal around Muhammad Ali's neck and whispered something in the heavyweight champion's ear. Then, as if to say "bring it on," the president put up his dukes in a mock challenge. Ali, 63, who has Parkinson's disease and moves slowly, looked the president in the eye -- and, finger to head, did the "crazy" twirl for a couple of seconds.
The room of about 200, including Cabinet secretaries, tittered with laughter. Ali, who was then escorted back to his chair, made the twirl again while sitting down. And the president looked visibly taken aback, laughing nervously.
Was Ali making a political statement? In his remarks about the fighter, Bush mentioned the Olympic gold medal, the grit, "the Ali shuffle, the lightning jabs . . . the sheer guts and determination he brought to every fight." He did not mention Ali's very public opposition to the Vietnam War, which led the prizefighter to lose his boxing license for three years when he refused to serve in the Army.
Or was the boxing legend living up to another trait the president noted, his penchant for psyching out the challenger?
"Clearly, the president said a statement to Muhammad that he found humorous and his response was the 'crazy sign,' at which the president laughed," said Craig Bankey, a spokesman for Ali. The Presidential Medal of Honor is the polite, distinguished and altogether restrained grand dame to the Academy Awards, Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, et al. It's no popularity contest -- no million-dollar Oscar campaigns to wage, no Nielsen ratings to measure, no SoundScan or iTunes to track album sales and online downloads. Simply, elegantly, it is a way of saying that, yes, kind sir and gentle lady, you've made an indelible mark. Thank you.
Last year, a month after the November election, Bush pinned the medal on three men who had been involved in the war against Iraq and its aftermath -- Tommy Franks, who had led the invasion, former CIA director George Tenet and L. Paul Bremer, who oversaw the country's reconstruction for a while.
This year the White House returned to an eclectic and star-studded list of honorees, who made no remarks. Franklin, the Queen of Soul, did not get to sing "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." Paul Harvey, the tireless radio broadcaster still heard nationwide after 54 years, did not get to say "[Pause] Good. Day." Andy Griffith, the sheriff of Mayberry, did not have a whistle-over. Retired Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not wear a uniform. Still, there they all were in the same room, along with former Mississippi congressman Sonny Montgomery, whose Montgomery G.I. Bill has helped send hundreds of thousands of veterans to schools.
It was President Harry S. Truman, the "ordinary man from Missouri," who established the original Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1945, at the end of World War II. The award was handed out to more than 20,000 people, like a fifth-grade soccer match in which everyone, both losers and winners, gets a trophy. Then President John F. Kennedy redefined the award in 1963, bestowing it on a smaller set of recipients from various walks of life.
Also honored yesterday: Paul Resusabagina, the hotel manager from Kigali, Rwanda, whose life story was dramatized in the movie "Hotel Rwanda" and who risked his life to save more than 1,000 people during the 1994 Rwandan genocide; Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, the men who in figuring out how to routinely and quickly transmit data over computer networks helped start a digital revolution; and historian Robert Conquest, whose masterpiece, "The Great Terror," chronicled the Russian Revolution.
"The truths he told," Bush said, "were not always in fashion."
In addition to Ali, two other record-breaking athletes took the spotlight: golfer Jack Nicklaus and Frank Robinson, the baseball Hall of Famer who was the first African American to become a team manager, as well as the 70-year-old who coaxed and coached the Nationals to an impressive season in baseball's return to Washington.
Ali, dressed in a suit, barely cracking a smile, received the loudest and most sustained applause of the day. And the always quotable man who said "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong" and "I am the onliest of boxing's poet laureates" delivered the most striking moment without speaking a word.