WASHINGTON — President Obama pinned the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Bob Dylan’s neck as the singer stood in the White House inscrutable in black sunglasses.
“I have to say that I am a really big fan,” Obama said as he introduced Dylan, one of a number of figures from the struggles and accomplishments of the 1960s, as well as other eras, whom Obama chose to honor Tuesday. Labor leader and civil rights campaigner Dolores Huerta and astronaut John Glenn also received the medal.
“I remember, you know, in college listening to Bob Dylan and my world opening up because he captured something about this country that was so vital,” Obama said.
The president said many of the recipients had had a personal effect on his life. The year 1962 looms especially large in Obama’s picks: That was the year Dylan put out his first album, Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Assn. and Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
The medal is the country’s highest civilian honor and the president has wide latitude in choosing recipients. It is awarded to people who have made major contributions to the security of the United States, world peace or culture, or have undertaken “other significant public or private endeavors.”
Huerta founded the farmworkers group, which later became the United Farm Workers, with Cesar Chavez, who was awarded the medal in 1994, shortly after his death. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, Huerta worked to extend social programs to farmworkers in California. She also, Obama noted, coined the slogan “Si, se puede” (“Yes, we can”).
“Dolores was very gracious when I told her I had stolen her slogan,” he said.
It was not Dylan’s first time receiving a ribbon at the White House: In 1997, President Clinton named him a Kennedy Center honoree. In 2010, Obama awarded the singer the National Medal of Arts. Dylan did not attend the ceremony then, but did perform “The Times They Are a-Changin” for the president at the White House the same year.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom hangs from a blue ribbon and is made up of a blue disk whose surface is filled with stars, layered on a white star and red pentagon surrounded by gold eagles.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was also among the 12 people presented with the medal Tuesday. Former Justice Department civil rights lawyer John Doar, epidemiologist William Foege, novelist Toni Morrison, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and college basketball coach Pat Summitt also received the award.
Gordon Hirabayashi, who fought against the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; Jan Karski, an officer in the Polish underground in the war; and Juliette Gordon Low, who founded the Girl Scouts, were honored posthumously.
Israeli President Shimon Peres will also receive the award, but it will be presented at a dinner in June.