President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday to former President George H.W. Bush and 14 others, including poet Maya Angelou, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, investor Warren Buffett and basketball legend Bill Russell.
The medal is the nation’s highest civilian honor and is awarded to individuals who have made significant contributions “to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
“This is one of the things I most look forward to every year,” Obama said, calling the honorees “the best of who we are and who we aspire to be.”
Obama said Bush’s “life is a testament that public service is a noble calling.” He praised Angelou for rising above an abusive childhood to inspire others with her words, saying her voice has “spoken to millions, including my mother, which is why my sister is named Maya.”
He quoted Angelou, saying, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again,” and bent down to kiss her cheek as he presented her with the medal.
He joked that Ma, who has been performing in concert since age 5, was a “late bloomer,” and described his award-winning career. Buffett was honored for his philanthropic efforts.
Politicians Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) were honored, although Merkel wasn’t present to receive her medal.
Other honorees were Sylvia Mendez, a civil rights activist; John H. Adams, co-founder of the National Resources Defense Council; Jasper Johns, an American artist; Gerda Weissmann Klein, a Holocaust survivor, author and activist; Stan Musial, a baseball Hall of Fame inductee; Jean Kennedy Smith, former ambassador to Ireland and founder of VSA, an organization that promotes the artistic talents of young people with disabilities; John J. Sweeney, former president of the AFL-CIO; and Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist who was killed while on a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan, whose award was accepted by his wife.