WASHINGTON – President Obama recognized 17 Americans with the nation's highest civilian award Tuesday, including giants of the entertainment industry such as Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg, baseball legends Willie Mays and Yogi Berra, and politicians, activists and government innovators.
In addition to filmmaker Spielberg and singer and Oscar-winner Streisand, Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to musicians Gloria and Emilio Estefan, singer James Taylor, composer Stephen Sondheim and violinist Itzhak Perlman.
Mays was among the first African-American players in Major League Baseball. Berra, who died in September, was a Yankee great at catcher, an 18-time All-Star and 10-time World Series champion.
The politicians getting the honor are Democrats: Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who has championed equal pay and women's health during her 44 years of public service; former Rep. Lee Hamilton from Indiana, a longtime advocate of American national security and international relations; and the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm from New York. Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress and a founding member of what would become the Congressional Black Caucus.
"Today we celebrate some extraordinary people: innovators, artists and leaders who contribute to America's strength as a nation," Obama said.
Of Hamilton, Obama said he helped guide the nation through the Cold War and had a consistent commitment to bipartisanship. Of Berra, the president said he was born to play baseball but noted that he also served in World War II. Of Taylor, he said the singer could turn an arena into a living room. Mays, he said, was such a giant that it allowed "someone like me" to consider running for president.
Obama spoke about each recipient; among the other honorees were:
—Bonnie Carroll, a veterans advocate, who founded the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) to support families and loved ones of military heroes killed during their service.
—Katherine G. Johnson, a NASA mathematician, whose calculations influenced every major space program, including the flight of the first American into space.
—William Ruckelshaus, a former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, who shaped the guiding principles of the agency, including a nationwide ban on the pesticide DDT and an agreement with the automobile industry to require catalytic converters to reduce automobile pollution.
Posthumous recipients include Indian tribal advocate Billy Frank Jr., who led "fish-ins"— similar to sit-ins— during the tribal "fish wars" of the 1960s and 1970s, and civil rights leader Minoru Yasui, who challenged the constitutionality of a military curfew order during World War II on the grounds of racial discrimination and spent months in solitary confinement during the legal battle.