Having the president fasten the Medal of Freedom around your neck while an announcer booms your life's greatest accomplishments apparently does something even to those most accustomed to fame and fortune.
"All who receive the Medal of Freedom can know that they have a special place in the life of our country, and have earned the respect and affection of the American people," Mr. Bush said Wednesday as he gave the awards.
Last year, Mr. Bush chose three architects of his Iraq agenda as award winners — and drew fire for it.
This year's 14 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the government's highest civilian honor, were divided about equally between sports and entertainment celebrities and prominent figures from the more sober worlds of economics, science, letters and policy.
They ranged from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, who designed a language for data transmission that gave rise to the Internet, to golfer Jack Nicklaus and actor Andy Griffith.
Only one — Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier whose shelter of hundreds of people from the 1994 Rwandan genocide was the subject of the movie "Hotel Rwanda" — was under 60. Actor Don Cheadle, who played Rusesabagina in the movie, sat on the edge of his chair toward the back of the audience, snapping pictures.
White House stewards — and even Mr. Bush himself — stepped in to help several recipients navigate the nearly hourlong ceremony. Ali suffers from Parkinson's disease and other ailments, and radio personality Paul Harvey, former Rep. Sonny Montgomery and Soviet historian Robert Conquest are all well into their 80s.
The other winners were Gen. Richard Myers, the recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and baseball great Frank Robinson.
Mr. Bush saved Ali for last.
"When you say, 'The Greatest of All Time is in the room,' everyone knows who you mean," Mr. Bush said. "It's quite a claim to make. But as Muhammad Ali once said, `It's not bragging if you can back it up.' And this man backed it up."
Ali sat unsmiling, showing no reaction. Then Mr. Bush jokingly mimed a few punches in Ali's direction.
Ali didn't disappoint, coming right back at Mr. Bush to make a small circular hand movement — and then repeating it toward the cameras just to be sure he'd been seen.