President Barack Obama awards chemist, and Nobel Prize winner Mario Molina with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Nov. 20, 2013.
President Barack Obama awards chemist, and Nobel Prize winner Mario Molina with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Nov. 20, 2013.

WHITE HOUSE - President Barack Obama on Wednesday awarded the nation's highest civilian honor to 16 Americans, three of them posthumously, in a ceremony at the White House. It was also a day of tributes to John F. Kennedy, slain by an assassin 50 years ago.

John F. Kennedy established the modern version of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February, 1963, the year he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

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Sixteen Americans Awarded Medal of Freedom

Since then, more than 500 people have received the award, which recognizes contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

"In American life, people from originally very humble backgrounds in some cases can rise very high, do a great deal and not just do a lot for themselves and do a lot for others and one reason people still flock to come here is to get a chance to do that," said Aram Bakshian, a former White House speechwriter in the Reagan administration who was involved in selecting medal recipients.

Sixteen prominent Americans were honored this year, three posthumously, in the fields of politics, sports, entertainment, journalism, the law, civil rights and women's equality, and space exploration.

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Hall of Fame baseball player Ernie Banks was recognized.  Former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee was honored for his paper's coverage of momentous events in American history.

"With Ben in charge, the Post published the Pentagon Papers, revealing the true history of America's involvement in Vietnam, exposed Watergate, unleashed a new era of investigative journalism, holding America's leaders accountable and reminding us that our freedom as a nation rests on the freedom of the press,"  the president said.

Bill Clinton was honored for what Obama called his efforts to lift up American families, accomplishments as president.  And Obama observed, Clinton "was just getting started."

"He doesn't stop.  He has helped lead relief efforts after the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake," Obama said.  "His foundation and global initiative have helped to save or improve the lives of literally hundreds of millions of people."

Others recipients included, posthumously, Senator Daniel Inouye, and former senator Richard Lugar, recognized for his work in the destruction of nuclear arsenals in the former Soviet Union.

Actor and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey, along with country music legend Loretta Lynn, and Cuban-born jazz musician Arturo Sandoval.

"As a young man in Cuba, Arturo Sandoval loved jazz so much it landed him in jail.  It was the Cold War and the only radio station where he could hear jazz was the Voice of America, which was dangerous to listen to.  But Arturo listened anyway. . .today Arturo is an American citizen and one of most celebrated trumpet players in the world," Obama said.

Others honorees included two Nobel prize winners, psychologist Daniel Kahneman and chemist Mario Molina, America's first female astronaut, the late Sally Ride.  Also, C. T. Vivian and the late Bayard Rustin for their roles in the civil rights movement.

Writer and activist Gloria Steinem was recognized for her efforts for women's equality, former judge Patricia Wald for her pioneering legal accomplishments.  Former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith was honored for his winning record and contributions to advancing minorities in sports.

President Barack Obama (2nd L), first lady Michell
President Barack Obama (2nd L), first lady Michelle Obama (L), former President Bill Clinton (3rd L) and Hillary Clinton participate in a wreath laying in honor of assassinated President John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 2013.

The awards kicked off a day of tributes to the legacy of John F. Kennedy.

Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were joined by Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, and Kennedy family members, in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Kennedy grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

Later in a speech at the Smithsonian National American History Museum, President Obama paid tribute to the legacy of John F. Kennedy.

"This is a legacy of a man who could have retreated to a life of luxury and ease, but who chose to live a life in the arena, sailing sometimes against the wind, sometimes with it.  And that is why 50 years later, John F. Kennedy stands for posterity as he did in life, young and bold and daring, and he stays with us in our imagination not because he left us too soon but because he embodied the people he led," said President Obama.