Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom
May 23, 1985
From my days on the dinner circuit and in Hollywood, I can remember when associations holding a dinner and wanted someone prominent in public life to attend their annual dinner they would notify the individual that he or she had recently won the society's highest award, an award that they could collect if they showed up. And if they didn't, they would pick somebody else to give the honor to.
Well, a couple of months ago an invitation for lunch at the White House was sent to some of the individuals gathered in this room today, an invitation that also notified them they were recipients of this country's highest civilian honor. But I want to assure you that as flattered as Nancy and I are to have you here, this was not some conspiracy on our part to get this distinguished and talented group over to the house for lunch. Because, you see, the invitation really did not come from us at all. It comes from an entire nation, from all of America.
For your achievements in diplomacy, entertainment, government, politics, learning, culture, and science, the American people honor you today. Each of you has achieved that hardest of all things to achieve in his life -- something that will last and endure and take on life of its own.
My guess is that probably as long as this nation lasts, your descendants will speak with pride of the day you attended a White House ceremony and received this, the Medal of Freedom -- America's highest civilian honor. And 50 years from now, a century from now, historians will know your names and your achievements. You've left humanity a legacy, and on behalf of the American people, Nancy and I want to congratulate you.
You know, one of our medal winners today once made a film with Frank Capra about a man who took his own life for granted and was saddened by how little impact he seemed to have had on the world. But then a benevolent angel gave him the opportunity to see how different his hometown would have been had he not lived. And the man was astonished to discover how much good he had done without knowing it -- how many people he had touched and how many lives he had made richer and happier.
Well, more than you will ever know, this world would have been much poorer and a dimmer place without each of you. In a million countless ways you've inspired and uplifted your fellow men and women, and we want you never to forget that. And we are grateful to you for it, also.
It's a wonderful day for you and your families and for Nancy and myself, and I was just thinking, sometimes it's fun to be President. [Laughter]
But I'm about to present the medals, but I want each of you to know that it comes with the heartfelt thanks, the admiration and pride of the some 238 million Americans who couldn't be here for lunch, but are, believe me, here in spirit.
[As the President called each name, the recipient or the person accepting for the recipient went to the podium to receive the medal and remained standing behind the President. The President read the citations which accompany the medals. The texts of the citations are printed below.]
So, now, the first Medal of Freedom goes to Count Basie, and it will be received by his son, Aaron Woodward. Aaron.
For more than half a century, William ``Count'' Basie enraptured the people of America with his brilliant and innovative work in the field of jazz. In the 1930's and 40's, the Count became part of the fabric of American life as the leader of one of the greatest bands of the Big Band Era. His songs, from ``April in Paris'' to ``One O'Clock Jump,'' are American classics. Count Basie cut a notch in musical history and found a place in our hearts forever. Among the royalty of American arts and entertainment, there is no one more honored and more beloved than the Count.
And now -- there's a middle name here that's bothering me -- I hadn't used it before myself, but -- Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Did I get it right?
For decades, Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau has been a celebrated undersea explorer. His journeys aboard the Calypso have become known to millions through his books and films. His manned, undersea colonies yielded wealths of research and data and made important technical advances. His aqualung has made underwater diving available to all. Captain Cousteau perhaps has done more than any other individual to reveal the mysteries of the oceans that cover more than two-thirds of the surface of our planet. It is, therefore, likely that he will be remembered not only as a pioneer in his time but as a dominant figure in world history.
And Dr. Jerome Holland to receive -- and his wife, Mrs. Laura Holland.
Dr. Jerome Hartwell Holland, one of thirteen children in a small-town family in New York State, rose from poverty to become a leading educator, civil rights activist, author and diplomat. Dr. Holland dedicated his career to improving the lives of others, particularly his fellow black Americans, and to working for peace. A man of vigor and wisdom, Dr. Holland led a life of service, the memory of which today serves as an inspiration to millions.
Scholar, philosopher, and thinker -- Sidney Hook stands as one of the most eminent intellectual forces of our time. His commitment to rational thought and civil discourse has made him an eloquent spokesman for fair play in public life. His devotion to freedom made him one of the first to warn the intellectual world of its moral obligations and personal stake in the struggle between freedom and totalitarianism. A man of truth, a man of action, Sidney Hook's life and work make him one of America's greatest scholars, patriots, and lovers of liberty.
For four years as the Representative of the United States to the United Nations, Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick held high the flag of our country with courage and wisdom. She is an endlessly articulate spokeswoman for the moral and practical benefits of freedom and a tireless defender of the decency of the West. Jeane Kirkpatrick is a patriot, and there is no honor more appropriate for her than one entitled, ``The Presidential Medal of Freedom.'' It's bestowed this day by a nation that knows Jeane Kirkpatrick's work has only just begun.
Dr. George M. Low. This will be received by his wife, Mrs. Mary Low.
During his distinguished public service at NASA, Dr. George M. Low helped lead this nation's space program to its greatest achievements, directing the first manned landing on the moon and planning the shuttle program. As President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he continued to make his mark on the future, improving academic excellence and launching a program to spur technological innovation. Our nation will be reaping the benefits of his wisdom and vision for years to come.
Frank Reynolds, to be received by Mrs. Henrietta Reynolds.
Reporter and anchorman, family man and a patriot, Frank Reynolds' life exemplified the highest standards of his profession. His commitment to the truth, his unfailing sense of fairness, his long experience as both witness and participant in the great events of our time earned him the respect of his colleagues and the trust and admiration of the American people. We honor his memory for his aggressive but fair-minded reporting and devotion to profession, to family, and to country.
S. Dillon Ripley:
Upon becoming Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, S. Dillon Ripley ordered the statue of Joseph Henry turned so that it faced not inward toward the castle but outward toward the Mall, thereby signaling his intentions to open the Institution to the world. During the next 20 years, S. Dillon Ripley did just that, opening eight museums and doubling the number of visitors to the Institution. With dedication and tireless effort, S. Dillon Ripley made the Smithsonian one of the greatest museums and centers of learning on Earth.
For nearly 50 years, Americans have been putting their dreams away and letting one man take their place in our hearts. Singer, actor, humanitarian, patron of art and mentor of artists, Francis Albert Sinatra and his impact on America's popular culture are without peer. His love of country, his generosity toward those less fortunate, his distinctive art, and his winning and passionate persona make him one of our most remarkable and distinguished Americans, and one who truly did it ``His Way.''
James M. Stewart:
James Maitland Stewart arrived in Hollywood in 1935, and today, half a century later, his credits include more than 70 pictures, including such classics as ``Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'' ``The Philadelphia Story,'' and ``It's a Wonderful Life.'' A patriot, Mr. Stewart served with distinction as a pilot during World War II, rising to the rank of colonel in the Eighth Air Force. His typically American characters -- boyish, honest and kind -- mirror the Jimmy Stewart in real life -- an American boy who grew to a glorious manhood, but never lost his sense of wonder or his innocence.
Lieutenant General Albert C. Wedemeyer:
As one of America's most distinguished soldiers and patriots, Albert C. Wedemeyer has earned the gratitude of his country and the admiration of his countrymen. In the face of crisis and controversy, his integrity and his opposition to totalitarianism remained unshakeable. For his resolute defense of liberty and his abiding sense of personal honor, Albert C. Wedemeyer has earned the thanks and the deep affection of all who struggle for the cause of human freedom.
A hero in war and peace, Charles Yeager has served his country with dedication and courage beyond ordinary measure. On October 14, 1947, in a rocket plane which he named ``Glamorous Glynnis'' after his wife, Chuck Yeager became the first human being to travel faster than the speed of sound, and in doing so, showed to the world the real meaning of ``The Right Stuff.''
Well, that concludes our presentation. And congratulations to all of you who've made all of our lives richer.
Thank you. God bless you all.
Note: The President spoke at 1:26 p.m. in the East Room at the White House following a luncheon for the recipients and their guests.