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Bush Bestows Final Batch Of Medals Of Freedom

This was written by CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller.

For President Bush, the hardest part of awarding Presidential Medals of Freedom is clasping them around the recipients' necks.

The easy part for him today was singing the praises of three of the foreign leaders he came to admire most during his eight years in office.

In his last big ceremony in the East Room, Mr. Bush bestowed the highest civilian honor in his gift to two former prime ministers and a sitting president: Tony Blair of Britain, left, John Howard of Australia, center, and Alvaro Uribe of Colomia.

"They're the sort of guys who look you in the eye and tell you the truth and keep their word," said Pres.Bush of the honorees.

He said all of them "have shown a firm adherence to the principles of freedom and democratic values."

He called them warm friends of the United States who have "proved to be leaders of character and fortitude."

No foreign leader was more supportive of Mr. Bush and his policies than was Tony Blair – especially in the war on terrorism and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"Under Tony Blair's leadership, the might and the moral authority of Great Britain have been applied to the war on terror from the first day," said Mr. Bush.

Referring to Blair as America's "gallant friend," he said the former Prime Minister "will stand tall in history.

The president offered similar words of admiration for John Howard – calling him a man of honesty and moral clarity who "never wavered" in his commitment to defeat the terrorist threat.

"That's why I called him a Man of Steel," said Mr. Bush, invoking a phrase most at home in the pages of Superman comics.

And of Alvaro Uribe, Mr. Bush spoke of his personal courage and strength of character in confronting the narco-terrorists of Colombia.

"By refusing to allow the land he loves to be destroyed by an enemy within, by proving that terror can be opposed and defeated, President Uribe has reawakened the hopes of his countrymen and shown a model of leadership to a watching world."

In placing the medal around Tony Blair's neck, Mr. Bush found it difficult to close the clasp while standing in front of the recipient. For Howard and Uribe, Pres. Bush stood behind them and secured the blue and white ribbon more easily.

The Medal of Freedom dates back to President John F. Kennedy who established the award by Executive Order in 1963 to honor "especially meritorious contribution(s)" to the security of the United States, world peace or other endeavors.

Blair, Howard and Uribe are not the first foreign leaders receive the medal. Among the previous 78 individuals honored by Mr. Bush are former South African President Nelson Mandela, former Czech Pres. Vaclav Havel and the late Pope John Paul II.

Today's ceremony in the East Room was the last such event of Mr. Bush's presidency. And the audience included some familiar faces from the past including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and one-time House Speaker Denny Hastert.

Mr. Bush noted the waning days of his term in office in his remarks. He told Blair, Howard and Uribe they'll always be welcome in this country and he hopes they'll come visit him in Texas.

"As you probably have heard," said Mr. Bush, "we're changing addresses here."

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