President Obama Speaks at Medal of Freedom Ceremony, Honoring Bob Dylan, Toni Morrison et al.
President Barack Obama, Bob Dylan, Toni Morrison, Madeleine Albright, Medal of Freedom
Today, May 29th, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Medal of Freedom is our Nation's highest civilian honor, presented to 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 Medals were presented in the East Room at the White House in an afternoon ceremony. What follows is a transcript of the president's remarks. To read more about each of this year's honorees, click here.
"THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you very much. Everybody, please have a seat, and welcome to the White House. It is an extraordinary pleasure to be here with all of you to present this year's Medals of Freedom. And I have to say, just looking around the room, this is a packed house, which is a testament to how cool this group is. (Laughter.) Everybody wanted to check them out.
This is the highest civilian honor this country can bestow, which is ironic, because nobody sets out to win it. No one ever picks up a guitar, or fights a disease, or starts a movement, thinking, "You know what, if I keep this up, in 2012, I could get a medal in the White House from a guy named Barack Obama." (Laughter.) That wasn't in the plan.
But that's exactly what makes this award so special. Every one of today's honorees is blessed with an extraordinary amount of talent. All of them are driven. But, yes, we could fill this room many times over with people who are talented and driven. What sets these men and women apart is the incredible impact they have had on so many people -- not in short, blinding bursts, but steadily, over the course of a lifetime.
Together, the honorees on this stage, and the ones who couldn't be here, have moved us with their words; they have inspired us with their actions. They've enriched our lives and they've changed our lives for the better. Some of them are household names; others have labored quietly out of the public eye. Most of them may never fully appreciate the difference they've made or the influence that they've had, but that's where our job comes in. It's our job to help let them know how extraordinary their impact has been on our lives. And so today we present this amazing group with one more accolade for a life well led, and that's the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
So I'm going to take an opportunity -- I hope you guys don't mind -- to brag about each of you, starting with Madeleine Albright.
Usually, Madeleine does the talking. (Laughter.) Once in a while, she lets her jewelry do the talking. (Laughter.) When Saddam Hussein called her a "snake," she wore a serpent on her lapel -- (laughter) -- the next time she visited Baghdad. When Slobodan Milosevic referred to her as a "goat," a new pin appeared in her collection.
As the first woman to serve as America's top diplomat, Madeleine's courage and toughness helped bring peace to the Balkans and paved the way for progress in some of the most unstable corners of the world. And as an immigrant herself -- the granddaughter of Holocaust victims who fled her native Czechoslovakia as a child -- Madeleine brought a unique perspective to the job. This is one of my favorite stories. Once, at a naturalization ceremony, an Ethiopian man came up to her and said, "Only in America can a refugee meet the Secretary of State." And she replied, "Only in America can a refugee become the Secretary of State." (Laughter.) We're extraordinarily honored to have Madeleine here. And obviously, I think it's fair to say I speak for one of your successors who is so appreciative of the work you did and the path that you laid.
It was a scorching hot day in 1963, and Mississippi was on the verge of a massacre. The funeral procession for Medgar Evers had just disbanded, and a group of marchers was throwing rocks at a line of equally defiant and heavily-armed policemen. And suddenly, a white man in shirtsleeves, hands raised, walked towards the protestors and talked them into going home peacefully. And that man was John Doar. He was the face of the Justice Department in the South. He was proof that the federal government was listening. And over the years, John escorted James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. He walked alongside the Selma-to-Montgomery March. He laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the words of John Lewis, "He gave [civil rights workers] a reason not to give up on those in power." And he did it by never giving up on them. And I think it's fair to say that I might not be here had it not been for his work.
Bob Dylan started out singing other people's songs. But, as he says, "There came a point where I had to write what I wanted to say, because what I wanted to say, nobody else was writing." So born in Hibbing, Minnesota -- a town, he says, where "you couldn't be a rebel -- it was too cold" -- (laughter) -- Bob moved to New York at age 19. By the time he was 23, Bob's voice, with its weight, its unique, gravelly power was redefining not just what music sounded like, but the message it carried and how it made people feel. Today, everybody from Bruce Springsteen to U2 owes Bob a debt of gratitude. There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music. All these years later, he's still chasing that sound, still searching for a little bit of truth. And I have to say that I am a really big fan. (Laughter.)
In the 1960s, more than 2 million people died from smallpox every year. Just over a decade later, that number was zero -- 2 million to zero, thanks, in part, to Dr. Bill Foege. As a young medical missionary working in Nigeria, Bill helped develop a vaccination strategy that would later be used to eliminate smallpox from the face of the Earth. And when that war was won, he moved on to other diseases, always trying to figure out what works. In one remote Nigerian village, after vaccinating 2,000 people in a single day, Bill asked the local chief how he had gotten so many people to show up. And the chief explained that he had told everyone to come see -- to "come to the village and see the tallest man in the world." (Laughter.) Today, that world owes that really tall man a great debt of gratitude.
On the morning that John Glenn blasted off into space, America stood still. And for half an hour, the phones stopped ringing in Chicago police headquarters, and New York subway drivers offered a play-by-play account over the loudspeakers. President Kennedy interrupted a breakfast with congressional leaders and joined 100 million TV viewers to hear the famous
words, "Godspeed, John Glenn." The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn became a hero in every sense of the word, but he didn't stop there serving his country. As a senator, he found new ways to make a difference. And on his second trip into space at age 77, he defied the odds once again. But he reminds everybody, don't tell him he's lived a historic life. He says, "Are living." He'll say, "Don't put it in the past tense." He's still got a lot of stuff going on.
Gordon Hirabayashi knew what it was like to stand alone. As a student at the University of Washington, Gordon was one of only three Japanese Americans to defy the executive order that forced thousands of families to leave their homes, their jobs, and their civil rights behind and move to internment camps during World War II. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, and he lost. And it would be another 40 years before that decision was reversed, giving Asian Americans everywhere a small measure of justice. In Gordon's words, "It takes a crisis to tell us that unless citizens are willing to standup for the [Constitution], it's not worth the paper it's written on." And this country is better off because of citizens like him who are willing to stand up.
Similarly, when Cesar Chavez sat Dolores Huerta down at his kitchen table and told her they should start a union, she thought he was joking. She was a single mother of seven children, so she obviously didn't have a lot of free time. But Dolores had been an elementary school teacher and remembered seeing children come to school hungry and without shoes. So in the end, she agreed -- and workers everywhere are glad that she did. Without any negotiating experience, Dolores helped lead a worldwide grape boycott that forced growers to agree to some of the country's first farm worker contracts. And ever since, she has fought to give more people a seat at the table. "Don't wait to be invited," she says, "Step in there." And on a personal note, Dolores was very gracious when I told her I had stolen her slogan, "Si, se puede." Yes, we can. (Laughter.) Knowing her, I'm pleased that she let me off easy -- (laughter) -- because Dolores does not play. (Laughter.)
For years, Jan Karski's students at Georgetown University knew he was a great professor; what they didn't realize was he was also a hero. Fluent in four languages, possessed of a photographic memory, Jan served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II. Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale, and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself. Jan took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring to the world to take action. It was decades before Jan was ready to tell his story. By then, he said, "I don't need courage anymore. So I teach compassion."
Growing up in Georgia in the late 1800s, Juliette Gordon Low was not exactly typical. She flew airplanes. She went swimming. She experimented with electricity for fun. (Laughter.) And she recognized early on that in order to keep up with the changing times, women would have to be prepared. So at age 52, after meeting the founder of the Boy Scouts in England, Juliette came home and called her cousin and said, "I've got something for the girls of Savannah, and all of America, and all the world. And we're going to start it tonight!" A century later, almost 60 million Girl Scouts have gained leadership skills and self-confidence through the organization that she founded. They include CEOs, astronauts, my own Secretary of State. And from the very beginning, they have also included girls of different races and faiths and abilities, just the way that Juliette would have wanted it.
Toni Morrison -- she is used to a little distraction. As a single mother working at a publishing company by day, she would carve out a little time in the evening to write, often with her two sons pulling on her hair and tugging at her earrings. Once, a baby spit up on her tablet so she wrote around it. (Laughter.) Circumstances may not have been ideal, but the words that came out were magical. Toni Morrison's prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt. From "Song of Solomon" to "Beloved," Toni reaches us deeply, using a tone that is lyrical, precise, distinct, and inclusive. She believes that language "arcs toward the place where meaning might lie." The rest of us are lucky to be following along for the ride.
During oral argument, Justice John Paul Stevens often began his line of questioning with a polite, "May I interrupt?" or "May I ask a question?" You can imagine the lawyers would say, "okay" -- (laughter) -- after which he would, just as politely, force a lawyer to stop dancing around and focus on the most important issues in the case. And that was his signature style: modest, insightful, well-prepared, razor-sharp. He is the third-longest serving Justice in the history of the Court. And Justice Stevens applied, throughout his career, his clear and graceful manner to the defense of individual rights and the rule of law, always favoring a pragmatic solution over an ideological one. Ever humble, he would happily comply when unsuspecting tourists asked him to take their picture in front of the Court. (Laughter.) And at his vacation home in Florida, he was John from Arlington, better known for his world-class bridge game than his world-changing judicial opinions. Even in his final days on the bench, Justice Stevens insisted he was still "learning on the job." But in the end, we are the ones who have learned from him.