Thursday, November 21, 2013

President Obama Pays Tribute To John F. Kennedy's Legacy At Medal Of Freedom Anniversary Dinner

Kennedy family and Medal recipients join President and First Lady at National Museum of American History...
Washington, DC - With the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy'sK death on Friday, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday evening paid tribute to his legacy as they hosted a black tie dinner to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

Established by Kennedy in Feburary 1962 and first awarded three weeks after his assassination, the medal is the nation's highest civilian honor, and recognizes significant contributions to the arts, politics, science, and sports. 

Held in a dramatically lit hall in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, guests at the 7:00 PM dinner included sixty Medal recipients from all the categories, including those from 2013, honored by President Obama earlier in the day during a White House ceremony.

Clad in a tuxedo, President Obama said the slain 46-year old President lives on in the nation's imagination not because of his assassination, but because he embodied the character of America.  

Kennedy was defiant in the face of impossible odds, he said, and dedicated to making the world anew--through the arts, the sciences, and expanding civil society.  

In Kennedy's "sober, square-jawed idealism we are reminded that the power to change this country is ours," President Obama said.

Oprah Winfrey was seated beside Mrs. Obama and President Obama at the head table; 2013 Medal recipient President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton were also at the table.

Mrs. Obama was clad in a black halter-neck gown and dramtic diamond hoops earrings as she joined Aretha Franklin, Hank Aaron, Dolores Huerta, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., Gloria Steinem, Ernie Banks, Sen. Dick Lugar, Alan Greenspan, Jean Kennedy Smith and the other recipients.

Cabinet Secretaries and top Administration officials and members of the Kennedy clan, including grandson John "Jack" Schlossberg, the 20-year-old son of Caroline Kennedy, were also on hand, gathered around tables decorated with hot pink floral arrangements and heavy crystal candelabras.

The room was quiet as President Obama spoke about Kennedy's legacy.  In his short term in office, Kennedy founded the Peace Corps and the space program, among other initiatives, President Obama said.

With the Medal, President Obama said, "we celebrate imagination and education and occasional rebellion.  And we refuse to set limits on what we can do or who we can be."

"Other peoples in other times have marked their history by moments of conquest at war, by dominion over empires.  But in the arc of human history, the American experience stands apart, because our triumph is not simply found in the exertion of our power; it’s found in the example of our people. Our particular genius over 237 years has been something more than the sum of our individual excellence, but rather a culmination of our common endeavors."

It was a truth that resonated with Kennedy, and his legacy, President Obama said, and quoted him: "he said, “…I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we…will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

"It’s a legacy on display in the arts and culture that he and Jackie championed as part of our national character, a legacy planted on the moon that he said that we’d visit and that we did, in the stars beyond, but also in the breakthroughs of the generations of scientists that his audacious promise inspired," President Obama said.

"This is a legacy of a man who could have retreated to a life of luxury and ease, but he chose to live a life in the arena," President Obama said. "Sailing sometimes against the wind, sometimes with it."

President Obama made comparisons to modern ways of giving back, like San Francisco letting a little boy "live out his superhero dreams"--a reference to Bat Kid, who took over San Francisco earlier this week--and mentioned relief efforts for the typhoon in the Philippines. 

He saluted other Kennedys---including Jean Kennedy Smith, and acknowledged Ethel Kennedy as "one of my dearest friends."  He called his former mentor Sen. Ted Kennedy "the youngest brother with the biggest heart" and a "happy warrior," and mentioned the passing of Vikki Kennedy’s father. The day would have been Bobby Kennedy's 88th birthday, the President said.  He received a standing ovation after his remarks.

Schlossberg, a Yale student, introduced the President, speaking about his grandfather and saying it was his "very, very deep honor" to ask the crowd to welcome President Obama.

He also reminded the crowd about Bobby Kennedy’s 88th birthday, joking that the whole crowd was instead invited to his own 21st birthday party in New Haven. That got a laugh.

His grandfather reminded us that "everyone has the capability to explore, to imagine,” Schlossberg said.  "He recognized his path was just one of many and that service can and does manifest itself in different ways."

Caroline Kennedy, newly at her post as Ambassador to Japan, was not at the dinner.

"Our new Ambassador to Japan would be pleased with how you performed this evening," President Obama afterwards told Schlossberg.  "I’ll give her a full report.”

In the afternoon Schlossberg chatted with the Obamas and Clintons at Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery, following a wreath ceremony.  All were silent as they stood with heads bowed after the wreath was place by the grave with the eternal flame on a hill overlooking the capitol.

Some of the '13 Medals were awarded posthumously, including ones to Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), astronaut Sally Ride and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin.  Each had loved ones at the dinner.

During the Medal ceremony, recounting Ride’s decision to become an astronaut, President Obama had joked: “All of us have moments when we look back and wonder, what the heck was I thinking? I have that quite a bit.”

The President also told the story of Winfrey being encouraged to change her name to "Suzie" to make her more relateable to the public.  "I got the same advice,” President Obama quipped.

President Clinton was seated beside Ernie Banks, and chatted with Secretary of State John Kerry, who was seated front and center.  A table in the back included Medal recipients Gen. Wesley Clark and Greenspan, as well as Treasury Secretary Jack LewSenior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, in an electric blue gown, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) were also among the guests.  (Above: Clinton and Kerry)

An orchestra greeted guests as they arrived for the dinner.  Mrs. Clinton as she entered down a long, lit staircase was seen embracing Medal recipient Jesse Jackson Sr., who isn’t a regular on the White House guest list.  Jackson sported a tux with a vest.  Clinton was in a floral print top.

President Clinton chatted with a few reporters for a bit when he spotted members of pool who had covered him in the White House.  He wore his new medal around his neck. 

"They told me I had to wear it,” Clinton quipped, then he started telling a story about how '13 awardee Gloria Steinem had thanked him for giving an award to Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller when he was President.  

Just as the story got going, Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide, rushed over to give him the hook in mid-sentence.

'13 Medal recipient Arturo Sandoval, born in Cuba, performed after the dinner, opening with a trumpet rendition of "God Bless America."

"I say that many times a day," Sandoval told the crowd.

Then he switched to jazz, playing a song he wrote his friend and mentor Dizzy Gillespie, "Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You)," where he sang and did a solo. 

On display at the museum in a special exhibit are the printed design drawings for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, created by the Institute of Heraldry, U.S. Army, for the review of President and Mrs. Kennedy, as well as Executive Order 11085, establishing the Presidential Medal of Freedom, signed by President Kennedy on February 22, 1963.

The President and Mrs. Obama departed the dinner by motorcade at 9:25 PM, and arrived back at the White House at 9:28 PM.

On Friday at the White House the President will mark the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination by meeting with members of the Peace Corps, according to White House officials.

*The transcript of the President's remarks.

*The White House guest list.

*Pool photos