On Tuesday President Barack Obama presented 17 Americans with the nation's highest civilian honor. USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — The 17 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year are "extraordinary people" who have left their mark on politics, entertainment, athletics and the United States itself, President Obama said Tuesday.
From singer-actress Barbra Streisand to NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson to filmmaker Steven Spielberg to recently deceased baseball star Yogi Berra, Obama paid tribute to American originals with the nation's highest civilian honor during a White House ceremony.
"We celebrate artists, public servants and two legends from America's pastime," Obama said, the latter comment referring to Berra and fellow baseball Hall of Fame member Willie Mays.
Berra, who died in September, is as known for his use of the language as well as his baseball skill, Obama said, paying tribute to the man who said "it ain't over 'til it's over." Mays, who wore a baseball cap to the ceremony, received perhaps the loudest ovation of the ceremony.
"It's because of giants like Willie that someone like me could think about running for president," said Obama, the nation's first African-American chief executive.
The honored political leaders included the late U.S. congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to mount a major presidential campaign; former congressman Lee Hamilton, who specialized in foreign affairs; and retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., whom Obama described as "a lioness on Capitol Hill."
William D. Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, also earned recognition for resigning his post in the Justice Department in 1973 rather than follow President Richard Nixon's order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor. Ruckelshaus "became known as Mr. Clean," Obama said.
In addition to Streisand, whom Obama noted has sold more albums than any woman in history, the entertainment awards included singer James Taylor. Obama praised Taylor as a good friend who makes listeners feel he is singing only to them.
Gloria Estefan and Emilio Estefan won honors for pioneering the Latin-flavored fusion sound in music, while composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim "re-invented the American musical" with complex and challenging themes.
Itzhak Perlman — "the most beloved violinist of our time," Obama said — also received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. So did Spielberg for films of "boundless imagination" that range from E.T. and Schindler's List to Saving Private Ryan.
Medal recipients also included social activists like the late Billy Frank Jr., an advocate for tribal fishing rights. The late Minoru Yasui made legal challenges to curfews imposed on Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Bonnie Carroll — whose husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, died in an Army C-12 plane crash in 1992 — founded the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a program to help military families who have also lost loved ones.
Johnson, the NASA mathematician, broke barriers of gender and race as she ascended to a position tracing the paths for early space flights, Obama said.
"This is an extraordinary group," Obama said, one that demonstrates "what an incredible tapestry this country is."