It was a ceremony rich in pageantry and politics: President Obama, at the nadir of his presidency, bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on a Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton.
Clinton returned to the East Room of the White House as Obama placed the blue-ribboned medal around his neck Wednesday. The prize, the nation’s highest civilian honor, is one that Clinton once handed out himself. It’s also an award that his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who smiled on from the audience, might hope to hand out herself in a few years.
Obama honored 15 other luminaries, including Ernie Banks, Benjamin C. Bradlee and Oprah Winfrey, at Wednesday’s ceremony. But the main attraction was Bill Clinton, who has had a complex and often strained relationship with the current president.
Obama uttered fewer than 300 words about Clinton. But his remarks paid tribute to the sweep of his public life — from transforming education as governor of Arkansas to growing the economy as the 42nd president to leading relief efforts in the wake of global natural disasters. Obama said Clinton’s charitable foundation has saved “literally hundreds of millions of people.”
“He still remembers as a child waving goodbye to his mom — tears in her eyes — as she went off to nursing school so she could provide for her family,” Obama said of Clinton. “And I think lifting up families like his own became the story of Bill Clinton’s life.”
For Obama, awarding the medals — “one of my favorite events every year,” he said — provided a respite from the troubled rollout of the health-care law that is vexing the White House and that has thrown his public approval ratings into a downward spiral.
The ceremony honored luminaries in sports, science, the arts, civil rights and public service. It marked the 50th anniversary of the award, established by President John F. Kennedy. Since 1963, more than 500 people have been honored.
Referring to Clinton and this year’s other honorees, Obama said: “These are the men and women who, in their extraordinary lives, remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit, the values that define us as Americans, the potential that lives inside all of us.”
Speaking two days before the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Obama recognized members of the Kennedy family in attendance: Ethel Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, and Jack Schlossberg, John F. Kennedy’s grandson and son of Caroline Kennedy, now Obama’s ambassador to Japan.
A few hours later, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama drove with Bill and Hillary Clinton to Arlington National Cemetery, where they laid a wreath next to the Eternal Flame at Kennedy’s grave.
This year’s Medal of Freedom recipients included Banks, who rose through the Negro Leagues to become the first black player for the Chicago Cubs; Bradlee, the legendary former executive editor of The Washington Post who oversaw the newspaper’s coverage of the Watergate scandal; and Winfrey, the renowned broadcast journalist and actress.
Other recipients included former senator Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), a longtime leader on foreign affairs; writer and feminist activist Gloria Steinem; the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a civil rights leader; Cuba-born jazz musician Arturo Sandoval; and country musician Loretta Lynn.
Three recipients were honored posthumously: Daniel K. Inouye, a Democratic senator from Hawaii and World War II hero; Sally K. Ride, the first American female astronaut to travel into space; and Bayard Rustin, an openly gay African American civil rights leader who promoted nonviolent protest alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Before bestowing the medals, Obama paid tribute to each recipient, saving his comments on Bill Clinton for last. With Clinton looking on with a smile, Obama heaped praise on his predecessor, saying his leadership is remembered “with such extraordinary fondness.”
Left unspoken was any reference to the heartburn Clinton caused the Obama White House just last week, when the former president — again playing the part of outside critic — said in an interview that Obama should honor his pledge that people should be allowed to keep their health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act.
But Obama did make a passing reference to an anecdote revealed in the new book “Double Down,” in which Obama is said to have tired of Clinton during a 2011 golf game and told an aide, “I like him . . . in doses.”
“I’m grateful, Bill, as well for the advice and counsel that you’ve offered me on and off the golf course,” Obama said Wednesday, drawing laughter from the audience.
The possibility that the Clintons may succeed the Obamas in the White House hung over the event. Before the ceremony began, Hillary Clinton worked the room, chatting with former Senate colleagues and other political dignitaries.
Obama made no mention of the chance that his 2008 rival might run for president again in 2016, but he did recognize her four-year tour of service as head of the State Department.
Referring to Bill Clinton, Obama said: “I am most grateful for his patience during the endless travels of my secretary of state.”
William Branigin contributed to this report.