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Oprah, Bill Clinton among 16 Medal of Freedom recipients

President Obama honored the 16 recipients of this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony Wednesday, continuing a tradition that dates back to an executive order from former President John F. Kennedy establishing the award.

Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago Friday, was set to award the first 31 recipients just two weeks after his trip to Dallas. But the ceremony has lived on, and more than 500 people have received the Medal of Freedom since then.

"This year it's just a little more special because this marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy establishing this award," Mr. Obama said. He mentioned a few Kennedy relatives in the audience including Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy and one of the president's self-described "favorite people," and JFK's grandson, Jack Schlossberg, whom the president called "a pretty good basketball player."

Later in the afternoon, Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, laid a wreath at Kennedy's gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery with former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

At the Medal of Freedom ceremony, Mr. Obama spoke about each of the nominees, whose ranks include former President Clinton, television personality and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey, and former Chicago Cubs baseball player Ernie Banks.

A White Sox fan, Mr. Obama nonetheless found a way to praise Banks. "Ernie became known as much for his 512 homeruns as for his cheer and his optimism and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs would go all the way. And that's, that's serious belief. That is something that even a White Sox fan could respect," he said.

And he drew chuckles from the crowd when he noted that Winfrey was encouraged to change her name to "Susie" early in her career.

"I got the same advice," the president said, prompting laughter, before he clarified, "they didn't say I should be named Susie, but they suggested I should change my name.

The honorees span a variety of fields including sports, music, public service and human rights and is a mix of living recipients and those who will receive their medal posthumously. In addition to Clinton, Winfrey and Banks, Mr. Obama awarded the medal to Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of The Washington Post when they broke news of the Watergate scandal; Daniel Inouye, the late Hawaii senator and first Japanese-American to serve in Congress; Daniel Kahneman a pioneering psychology scholar who earned the Nobel Prize in economics; former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who worked to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons; country music legend Loretta Lynn; chemist and scientist Mario Molina; Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut to travel to space; Bayard Rustin, a civil rights and gay rights activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King; musician Arturo Sandoval; Dean Smith, the head coach of the University of North Carolina basketball team from 1961 to 1997 and civil rights advocate; feminist movement leader and author Gloria Steinem; minister and civil rights leader Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian; and Judge Patricia Wald.

When he introduced psychologist Daniel Kahneman, an immigrant to Israel to who earned a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for his work applying cognitive psychology to economic analysis, Mr. Obama prompted another round of laughter from the audience, saying, "All of us have moments when we look back and wonder 'what the heck was I thinking?' I have that quite a bit."

Later Wednesday, current and past nominees will gather at the National Museum of American History, where Mr. Obama will pay tribute to Kennedy's legacy. Schlossberg is set to introduce the president. Other past recipients will attend the dinner, including baseball's Hank Aaron, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, singer Aretha Franklin, economist Alan Greenspan, Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

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