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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

The 2011 Medal of Freedom Award Ceremony

Aired February 15, 2011 - 13:37   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, you're looking at live pictures of the East Room at the White House where the presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony is set to begin moments from now. Fifteen honorees will receive the award, including former president George H.W. Bush.

Also, other stories we're following. Iranian lawmakers are calling for the execution of two key opposition leaders for inciting demonstrations. Both are reported to be under house arrest. They cracked down hard on protesters in Tehran yesterday. Dozens of people were detained, one person was reported killed.

President Obama is defending his fiscal year 2012 budget plan at a news conference a short time ago. He said program cuts and spending freezes he's proposing are based on tough choices. Some Democrats say the plan cuts too many critical programs. Many Republicans say it doesn't go far enough.

And this very minute at the White House, the President is about to award the presidential Medal of Freedom to 15 people, including former president George H.W. Bush, Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, baseball legend Stan Musial, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

It is America's highest civilian honor. We're going to join the ceremony live as soon as it begins, and if I'm not mistaken, it looks like it's about to begin right now.

Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Warren Buffett.

The honorable George H.W. Bush.

Jasper Johns.

Gerda Weissmann Klein.

The Honorable John Lewis.

Elizabeth Little, accepting on behalf of Dr. Tom Little.

Yo-Yo Ma.

Sylvia Mendez. Stanley Musial.

William Russell.

The Honorable Jean Kennedy Smith.

John Sweeney.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States and Mrs. Michelle Obama.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you so much. Everyone, please be seated. And welcome to the White House.

Some of you have been here before.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: This is one of the things that I most look forward to every year. A chance to meet with, and more importantly honor some of the most extraordinary people in America and around the world.

President Kennedy once said during a tribute to the poet Robert Frost, that "A nation reveals itself not only by the men and women it produces, but by the men and women that it honors, the people that it remembers."

And I heartily agree.

When you look at the men and women who are here today, it says something about who we are as a people. When we award this medal to a Congressman John Lewis, it says that we aspire to be a more just, more equal, more perfect union.

When we award it to a Jasper Johns, it says we value the original, and the imaginative.

When we award it to a Warren Buffett, it says we'd all like to be so humble and wise, and maybe make a little money along the way.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: And when we award it to former President George H.W. Bush, it says we celebrate an extraordinary life of service and of sacrifice. This year's Medal of Freedom recipients reveal the best of who we are, and who we aspire to be.

In 1970, John Adams and a handful of unpaid attorneys and law students salvaged some old desks and set up an environmental law firm in New York City. For 36 years John sat at the same desk. But the group he co-founded, the Natural Resources Defense Council, grew well beyond it.

Our first obligation is to the environment, John once said. If people want to protect the environment, we'll support their efforts. If not, we'll play hardball. With more than one million members, NRDC has won landmark cases and helped pass landmark laws to clean up our air and water, protect our forests and wildlife and keep our climate safe. The Rolling Stone put it best, If the planet has a lawyer, it's John Adams.

As a girl, Marguerite Ann Johnson endured trauma and abuse that actually led her to stop speaking. But as a performer, and ultimately a writer, a poet, Maya Angelou found her voice. It's a voice that's spoken to millions, including my mother, which is why my sister is named Maya.

By holding on, even amid cruelty and loss, and then expanding to a sense of compassion and ability to love, by holding on to her humanity, she has inspired countless others who have known injustice and misfortune in their own lives. I won't try to say it better than Maya Angelou herself, who wrote, that "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. And then faced with courage, need not be lived again. Lift up your eyes upon the day breaking for you. Give birth again to the dream."

In 1942, an 11-year-old boy from Omaha, Nebraska, invested his entire fortune in six shares of City Services Preferred at $38 per share. The stock soon dropped sharply --

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: -- devastating his holdings.

But true to form, the boy did not panic. He held those shares until the stock rebounded, earning himself a small profit. Things got a little bit better after that.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Today, we know Warren Buffett not only as one of the world's richest men, but also one of the most admired and respected. Unmoved by financial fads, he's doggedly sought out value, put his weight behind companies with promise, and demonstrated that integrity is not just a good trait, it is good for business.

And yet, for all the money he's earned, you don't see Warren Buffett wearing fancy suits, or driving fancy cars. Instead, you see him devoting the vast majority of his wealth to those around the world who are suffering or sick or in need of help. And he uses his stature as a leader to press others of great means to do the same. A philanthropist is a lover of humanity, and there is no word that fits Warren better.

I should point out, he's so thrifty, I had to give him a White House tie --

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: -- the last time he came here to visit. His was looking a little shredded.

So then when Bill Gates came, he wanted one, too. (LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: It has been noted that Jasper Johns' work playing off familiar images have transfixed people around the world. Historians will tell you that he helped usher in the artistic movements that would define the latter half of the 20th century. Many would say he is one of the greatest artists of our time.

And yet, of his own efforts, he has simply said, I'm just trying to find a way to make pictures. Just trying to find a way to make pictures.

Like, great artists before him, Jasper Johns pushed the boundaries of what art could be and challenged others to test their own assumptions. He didn't do it for fame, he didn't do it for success, although he earned both.

As he said, I assumed that everything would lead to complete failure, but I decided that it didn't matter, that would be my life. We are richer as a society because it was. And, Jasper, you've turned out fine.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: When you are among the youngest of nine children, you develop a strong sense of empathy. When those children are the Kennedys, you also develop a strong set of diplomatic skills just to be heard. Both traits helped Jean Kennedy Smith follow her siblings into public service.

When her brother, President Kennedy, visited Ireland in 1963, he promised he'd be back in the springtime. Thirty years later, it was left to jean to return for him. As President Clinton's ambassador to Ireland, Jean was as vital as she was unconventional, helping brave men and women find the courage to see past the scars of violence and mistrust and come together to forge a lasting peace.

Touched by experiences in her own life, Jean also founded the VSA program, helping people with disabilities discover the joys of learning through the arts, changing the lives of those it has served. And today her mission has spread to more than 50 countries and touched millions of lives, ensuring that the family business remains alive and well.

By the time she was 21, Gerda Klein had spent six years living under Nazi rule, three of them in concentration camps. Her parents and brother had been taken away, her best friend had died in her arms during a 350-mile death march, and she weighed only 68 pounds when she was found by American forces in an abandoned bicycle factory.

But Gerda survived. She married the soldier who rescued her. And ever since, as an author, historian and crusader for tolerance, she has taught the world that it is often in our most hopeless moments that we discover the extent of our strength and the depth of our love.

"I pray you never stand at any crossroads in your own lives," she says. "But if you do, if the darkness seems so total, if you think there is no way out, remember never, ever give up."

That's a quote that would be familiar to our next honoree. There's a quote inscribed over a doorway in Nashville where students first refused to leave lunch counters 51 years ago this February. And the quote said "If not us, then who. If not now, then when."

It's a question John Lewis has been asking his entire life. That's what led him to the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma after he had been beaten within an inch of his life before. That's why time and again he faced down death so that all of us could share equally in the joys of life. That's why all these years later he is known of the conscience of the United States Congress, still speaking his mind on issues of justice and equality.

And generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind. An American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time, whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.

An optometrist from New York, Tom Little, could have pursued a lucrative career. Instead, he was guided by his faith and he set out to heal the poorest of the poor in Afghanistan. For 30 years amid invasion and civil war, the terror of the Taliban, the spread of insurgency, he and his wife, Libby, helped bridge Afghans literally the miracle of sight.

Last summer, Tom and his team of doctors and nurses were ambushed and senselessly murdered. Today, we remember an honor Dr. Tom little, a humanitarian in the truest sense of the word. A man who not only dedicated his life to others but who lived that lesson of scripture, greater love hath no man that this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Yo-Yo Ma has been a concert cellist since the age of 5. Despite being a late bloomer --

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: -- he went on to record over 75 albums and win 16 Grammys, which means I'm only 14 behind him. While Yo-Yo could have just settled for being the world's greatest cellist, he said even greater than his passion for music is his passion for people. And I can testify to this. There are very few people you will meet with just the exuberance and job that Yo-Yo possesses.

And so he spent his life traveling the world and training and mentoring thousands of students from Lebanon to Korea to the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. A member of my committee on the arts and the humanities, he has been named a messenger of peace by the United Nations, and we understand why. In his words, "When we enlarge our view of the world, we deepen our understanding of our own lives."

For Sylvia Mendez, a lifelong quest for equality began when she was just 8 years old. Outraged that their daughter had to attend a segregated school, Sylvia's parents linked arms with other Latino families to fight injustice in a California federal court, a case that would pave the way for brown versus board of education.

The next year, when a classmate taunted Sylvia saying that Mexicans didn't belong there, she went home in tears, begging to leave the school. Her mother wouldn't have it. She told Sylvia, don't you realize that's why we went to court? You're just as good as he is. And Sylvia took those words to heart, and ever since she has made it her mission to spread a message of tolerance and opportunity to children of all backgrounds and all walks of life.

Growing up in communist East Germany, Angela Merkel dreamed of freedom. And when the wall finally crumbled and Germany was reunited she broke barriers of her own, becoming the first East German and the first woman to become chancellor of Germany.

To America, Chancellor Merkel and the country she leads are among our closest allies. To me, she is a trusted global partner and a friend. To people around the world, the story of Angela Merkel is an inspiration.

Everything is possible, she said. Something the world has seen again in recent weeks. Freedom does not come about of itself. It must be struggled for and then defended anew every day of our lives.

Chancellor Merkel isn't here today. She'll be visiting me for a visit -- an official visit soon, and so I look forward to presenting her the award when she comes.

Stan Musial, His brilliance comes in fighting bursts, hitting five home runs in a single day's double-header, leading the league in singles, doubles, triples and RBIs over a single season, three World Series, first ballot hall of famer, worthy of one of the greatest nicknames in sports, "Stan the Man."

My grandfather was Stan, by the way. So I used to call him the man, too.

Stan Musial made that brilliance burn for two decades. Stan matched his hustle with humility. He retired with 17 records, even as he missed a season in his prime to serve his country in the Navy.

He was the first player to make -- get this -- $100,000. Even more shocking, he asked for a pay cut when he didn't perform up to his own expectations. You can imagine that happening today.

Stan remains to this day an icon, untarnished, a beloved pillar of the community, a gentleman you'd want your kids to emulate. "I hope I've given baseball nearly as much as I've gotten from it," Stan wrote in his memoirs, knocking it out of the park one more time.

When Bill Russell was in junior high, he was cut from his basketball team. He got better after that.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: He led the University of San Francisco to two championships. In 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics he won 11 championships, a record unmatched in any sport. Won two while also serving as the team's coach. It so happens he also was the first African-American ever to hold such a position as a coach in a major league sports team of any sort.

More than any athlete of his era, Bill Russell came to define the word "winner." And yet, whenever someone looks up at all 6'9" of Bill Russell -- I just did, I always feel small next to him -- and asks, are you a basketball player -- surprisingly, he gets this more than you'd think, this question -- he says, no. He said, that's what I do, that's not what I am. I'm not a basketball player. I am a man who plays basketball.

Bill Russell the man is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men. He marched with King. He stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players and made possible the success of so many who would follow, and I hope that one day in the streets of Boston children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player but Bill Russell the man.

The Bronx-born son of Irish immigrants, John Sweeney, was shaped by three things. His family, his mother was a maid, his father a bus driver, instilled in him that fundamentally American idea that through hard work we can make of our lives what we will. The church taught him our obligations to ourselves and one another. And as a child, he saw that by banding together in a union we can accomplish great things that we can't accomplish alone.

John devoted his career to the labor movement, adding working folks to its ranks and fighting for fair working conditions and fair wages. As the head of the AFL-CIO, he was responsible for dozens of unions with millions of working families.

So family, faith, fidelity to the common good, these are the values that made John Sweeney who he is, values at the heart of a labor movement that has helped build the world's greatest middle class.

And finally we recognize our last recipient, not simply for the years he spent as our 41st president, we honor George Herbert Walker Bush for service to America that spanned nearly 70 years.

From a decorated Navy pilot who nearly gave his life in World War II to U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, from CIA director to U.S. envoy to China, to the vice presidency, his life is a testament that public service is a noble calling.

As president, he expanded America's promise to new immigrants and people with disabilities. He reduced nuclear weapons. He built a broad international coalition to expel a dictator from Kuwait. When democratic revolution swept across Eastern Europe, it was the steady, diplomatic hand of President Bush that made possible an achievement once thought impossible, ending the cold war without firing a shot.

I would add that, like the remarkable Barbara Bush, his humility and his decency reflects the very best of the American spirit. Those of you who know him, this is a gentleman inspiring citizens to become points of light and service to others, teaming up with a one-time political opponent to champion relief for the victims of the Asian tsunami, the Hurricane Katrina.

And then, just to cap it off, well into his 80s, he decides to jump out of airplanes because, as he explains, it feels good.

These are the recipients of the 2010 Medal of Freedom. So now it is my great pleasure and my great honor to present them with their medals.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John H. Adams. John H. Adams. At a time when contaminated water ways and polluted air threatened too many of our communities, John H. Adams co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council to encourage responsible stewardship of our natural resources.

A staunch defender of the wonders of our plane, he served as executive director and later president of the NRDC, challenging Americans to live up to our responsibilities to leave something better to our children with an urgency matched by few others. John Adams' decades-long commitment to safe guarding the earth has left our air purer, our water cleaner and our planet healthier for generations to come.

Dr. Maya Angelou. Out of a youth marked by pain and injustice, Dr. Maya Angelou rose with an unbending determination to fight for civil rights and inspire every one of us to recognize and embrace the possibility and potential we each hold.

With her soaring poetry, towering prose and mastery of a range of art forms, Dr. Angelou has spoken to the conscience of our nation. Her soul-stirring words have taught us how to reach across division and honor the beauty of our world.

Warren E. Buffet. As a world-renowned investor and philanthropist, Warren E. Buffet's business acumen is matched only to his dedication of improving the lives of others. He is a co-founder of the Giving Pledge, an organization that encourages wealthy Americans to donate at least 50 percent of their wealth to philanthropic causes.

Warren Buffett's example of generosity and compassion has shown us the power of one individual's determination and inspired countless women and men to help make our world a brighter place.

The honorable George Herbert Walker Bush. From his time as a decorated Navy pilot to his years in the White House as the 41st president of the United States, President George Herbert Walker Bush has led a life marked by a profound commitment to serving others.

As president, he held the American value of liberty during a time of renewal and promise. As a private citizen, he has united Americans in times of crisis, lending his tireless efforts to men and women whose lives have been upended by disaster. Over the arc of his life, President Bush has served our nation for a tremendous source of good and we proudly salute him for his devotion to our country and our world.

Jasper Johns. Bold and iconic, the work of can Jasper Johns has left lasting impressions on Americans. With nontraditional methods he has explored themes of identity, perception and patriotism. By asking us to reexamine the familiar, his work has sparked the minds of creative thinkers around the world.

Jasper Johns helped shape the pop, minimal and conceptual art movements and the United States honors him for the profound influence he has had on generations of artists.

Gerda Weissmann Klein. Gerda Weissmann Klein's life is a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit. A holocaust survivor, she was separated from her parents and sent to a series of Nazi labor camps. In 1945 she was one of the few survivors among those forced to undergo a 350 mile death march to avoid the progress of liberating allied forces.

From tragedy to triumph, she and her husband proudly started the Gerda and Kirk Klein Foundation to promote tolerance, respect and empowerment of students throughout the world. By sharing her stories and encouraging others to see themselves in one another, Gerda Klein has helped to advance understanding among all people.

The honorable John R. Lewis. From his activism in the civil rights movement to his nearly 25 years in the House of Representatives, John R. Lewis has dedicated his life to shattering barriers and fighting injustice. The son of share croppers from Alabama, he rose with courage, fortitude and purpose to organize the first student sit-ins in the earliest freedom rides.

The youngest speaker at the 1963 march on Washington, a fearless advocate and a distinguished member of Congress, John Lewis has earned our lasting gratitude to a lifetime dedicated to the pursuit of equality and justice for all.

Elizabeth Little accepting on behalf of her husband Dr. Thomas Emmitt Little. Dr. Thomas Emmitt Little was an optometrist who devoted his life and skills to those in need. Starting in the 1970s, Dr. Little and his wife lived largely in Afghanistan in order to provide vision care to the people of that nation.

Even as they dedicated their lives to healing others, Dr. Little and nine of his team members were murdered in Afghanistan in 2010. Our nation mourns the loss of these humanitarians who paid the ultimate price in pursuit of their ideals and we look to Dr. Little's example of generosity and good will so we can better know the meaning of sacrifice and the necessity of peace.

Yo-Yo Ma. Recognized as one of the world's greatest musicians, Yo-Yo Ma's talents know no boundaries of genre or culture. Since performing at The White House for President Kennedy at the age of 7, he has recorded more than 75 albums, won more than a dozen Grammy awards and established himself as one of our nation's most acclaimed and respected artists.

His music has bound us together and captured our imagination and the United States proudly honors this prolific cellist and ambassador for the arts.

Sylvia Mendez. Sylvia Mendez was thrust to the forefront of the civil rights movement when she was just a child. Denied entry to the Westminster School because of her Mexican heritage, she sought justice in her subsequent legal case, Mendez versus Westminster effectively ended segregation as a matter of law in California.

The arguments in that case catalyzed the desegregation of our schools prevailed in the landmark case of Brown versus Board of Education forever changing our nation. Today, Sylvia Mendez continues to share her remarkable story and advocate for equality in classrooms across America.

Stanley F. Musial. Stanley F. Musial represents the best of American sports icons. His name is synonymous with the St. Louis Cardinals, the team on which he played for his entire 22-year career. A perennial all-star and three-time most valuable player, he won accolades as a player and championships as a teammate.

Nicknamed "Stan The Man Musial" he played the game with unrivaled passion and his humility and decency remained a model for all young Americans to this day.

William F. Russell. Basketball was a different sport before William F. Russell donned a uniform. With unmatched skill, he led the Boston Celtics to an unparalleled string of titles and earned the division of being named the NBA's most valuable player five times. He broke down barriers on and off the court, become being basketball's first African-American coach and serving as a passionate advocate for civil rights. Bill Russell can reflect with pride in helping change the culture of a sport and the course of our nation.

The honorable Jean Kennedy Smith. The eighth of nine children to Joseph and Rose Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith join the family business of helping her fellow Americans in improving our world. In 1974, she founded very special arts, a nonprofit organization that promotes the artistic talents of young people living with disabilities.

On the international stage, Jean Kennedy Smith played a pivotal role in the peace process in Northern Ireland while serving as the United States ambassador to Ireland. With intelligence, compassion, and grace, Jean Kennedy Smith has contributed volumes to her family's outstanding legacy of service to our country.

John J. Sweeney. As a champion for the American worker, John J. Sweeney has strengthened our families, our economy and our country. The son of Irish immigrants, he worked his way up in the labor movement serving as president of the Service Employees International Union and president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial organizations, all the while reaffirming our nation's commitment to rewarding the enduring values of hard work and responsibility. The United States proudly honors John Sweeney for a lifetime of courageous service on behalf of working people.

OBAMA: I know that people try to observe decorum when they're here in the White House, but I'd welcome everybody to stand and acknowledge these extraordinary men and women, the 2011 Medal of Freedom honorees.

All right, everybody. Now you can see why I love this day, and I hope everyone has a wonderful time during the reception. Thank you so much for your attendance. And again to our honorees, thanks for setting such an extraordinary example for all of us. Thank you very much.

VELSHI: There you have it, the president of the United States in the East Room of the White House having just presented 15 Presidential Medals of Freedom to various recipients including former president, there he is, former President George H.W. Bush, Maya Angelou, Warren Buffett, various other recipients.

The president is now leaving that room. It's been a busy day for him. Earlier today, he held a press conference about the federal budget, the proposed budget for fiscal year 2012.

When we come back, we'll talk a bit about that. We have a lot of other news for you as well. We'll leave you with this picture of the president in the East Room.