Highlights and the president's speech from the ceremony at the White House Wednesday where former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee received the Medal of Freedom. (The Washington Post)

President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to 16 recipients Wednesday morning, recognizing the achievements of a diverse group of Americans ranging from Ernie Banks and Benjamin C. Bradlee to Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.

Before bestowing the medals, Obama paid tribute to each recipient, saving his comments on Clinton for last and expressing gratitude for the former president’s advice and counsel, as well as his work to help the victims of natural disasters after he left office.

The ceremony in the East Room of the White House honored “individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” the White House said.

Since the medal was established 50 years ago by President John F. Kennedy, “more than 500 exceptional individuals from all corners of society” have received the award, according to the White House.

“I hope we carry away from this a reminder of what JFK understood to be the essence of the American spirit,” Obama said at the end of Wednesday’s ceremony. “Some of us may be less talented, but we all have the opportunity to serve and to open people’s hearts and minds in our smaller orbits. So I hope that everybody’s been inspired as I have been, participating in being with these people here today.”

This year’s recipients included three Americans who were recognized posthumously: Daniel K. Inouye, a Democratic senator from Hawaii who received the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II; Sally K. Ride, the first American woman 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. Inouye and Ride died last year; Rustin died in 1987.

Bradlee, 92, the legendary former executive editor of The Washington Post, “oversaw coverage of the Watergate scandal, successfully challenged the federal government over the right to publish the Pentagon Papers, and guided the newspaper through some of its most challenging moments,” the White House said in announcing the awards.

Banks, 82, who played for 19 years with the Chicago Cubs, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility. Known as “Mr. Cub,” he was widely recognized for his enthusiasm for baseball; “Let’s play two!” became his typical catchphrase before a game.

Clinton, 67, who served two terms as president, from 1993 to 2001, later “established the Clinton Foundation to improve global health, strengthen economies, promote health and wellness, and protect the environment,” the White House said.

Winfrey, 59, renowned as a broadcast journalist and actress, was recognized for her long involvement in philanthropic causes and efforts to expand opportunities for young women. She has won numerous other honors during her career, including the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2011 and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2010.

Other awardees Wednesday included Daniel Kahneman, a pioneering scholar of psychology; Richard G. Lugar, a former Republican senator from Indiana; Loretta Lynn, a country music star; Mario Molina, a chemist and environmental scientist; Arturo Sandoval, a jazz trumpeter, pianist and composer originally from Cuba; Dean Smith, head coach of the University of North Carolina basketball team from 1961 to 1997; Gloria Steinem, a renowned feminist writer, magazine founder and activist for women’s rights; Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, a civil rights leader, minister and author; and Patricia Wald, a trailblazing federal judge who later served on the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.

In honoring Kahneman, who applied cognitive psychology to economic analysis and won a Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, Obama drew laughter when he said: “Now, all of us have moments when we look back and wonder, what the heck was I thinking? I have that -- quite a bit.” He said Kahneman “basically invented the study of human decision-making,” adding: “He has also been called an expert on irrational behavior, so I’m sure that he could shed some light on Washington.”

Obama noted that Bradlee served in the Navy during World War II and fought in more than a dozen Pacific battles.

“Since joining The Washington Post 65 years ago, he transformed that newspaper into one of the finest in the world,” Obama said. “And with Ben in charge, The Post published the Pentagon Papers, revealing the true history of America’s involvement in Vietnam, exposed Watergate, unleashed a new era of investigative journalism, holding America’s leaders accountable and reminding us that our freedom as a nation rests on our freedom of the press.”

Referring to Bradlee’s trademark banker shirts, Obama remarked: “And I also indicated to Ben, he can pull off those shirts, and I can’t. He always looks so cool in them.”

Honoring Winfrey, the president noted that early in her career, “her bosses told her she should change her name to Susie.” He went on: “I have to pause here to say, I got the same advice. Oh, they didn’t say I should be named Susie, but they suggested I should change my name.”

Obama said the talk-show icon was “living proof” of her own can-do spirit, having risen “from a childhood of poverty and abuse to the pinnacle of the entertainment universe.”

Of Clinton, Obama said: “As president, he proved that with the right choices, you could grow the economy, lift people out of poverty, we could shrink our deficits and still invest in our families, our health, our schools, in science, technology. In other words, we can go further when we look out for each other.”

Since leaving office, Obama said, Clinton has “helped lead relief efforts after the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake. His foundation and global initiative have helped to save or improve the lives of literally hundreds of millions of people.”

Referring to Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who headed the State Department during his first term, Obama added: “And, of course, I am most grateful for his patience during the endless travels of my secretary of state.”