President Barack Obama on Monday bestowed America’s highest civilian honor on trailblazers in the arts, sports and politics, along with a couple of entertainers who are among his personal favorites, the Associated Press reports.
The 18 notables who gathered in the White House East Room to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom left even the president himself in awe. Obama said the ceremony is one of his favorite events because it celebrates “people who have made America stronger and wiser and more humane and more beautiful.”
He revealed the first record he ever bought was by honoree Stevie Wonder and confessed a crush on Meryl Streep, gushing about her ability to promote empathy on and off the screen through charitable works.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is reserved for individuals who have made “meritorious contributions” to U.S. security, world peace or cultural endeavors. Obama said he took great pleasure in being able to present the award to Ethel Kennedy, since it was her brother-in-law the former president who expanded and elevated the honor more than a half century ago.
Others receiving the award included NBC journalist Tom Brokaw, author Isabel Allende, Native American activist Suzan Harjo, actress Marlo Thomas, economist Robert Solow, former Rep. Abner Mikva of Illinois, physicist Mildred Dresselhaus and golfer Charlie Sifford. Composer Stephen Sondheim was scheduled to receive the award, but Obama said he couldn’t make it and will be included in next year’s class of honorees.