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Presidents pay tribute to JFK

WASHINGTON — Honoring the legacy of John F. Kennedy, President Barack Obama laid a wreath at the assassinated president's gravesite as a nation remembers that terrible day in Dallas a half-century ago Friday.

Obama also recognized a group of distinguished Americans — including Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey — with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award established by Kennedy.

Obama was joined at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday by Clinton, and each president held hands with Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, as they climbed the stairs to the burial site on a steep hillside overlooking the nation's capital.

First lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton helped their husbands place a large wreath of white flowers in front of the roped-off gravesite of America's 35th president, which is marked by an ever-burning flame.

Both couples placed their hands over their hearts as taps sounded near a U.S. flag at half staff before greeting Kennedy relatives, including some who arrived in Obama's motorcade, before Friday's 50th anniversary of the assassination.

The day of tributes began at the White House, where Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 16 living and deceased Americans for their contributions in fields ranging from sports and entertainment to science and public service.

"These are the men and women who in their extraordinary lives remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit, the values that define us as Americans, the potential that lives inside of all of us," Obama said.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, daughter Chelsea Clinton and film director Steven Spielberg were among scores of people seated in the White House East Room for the ceremony, which Obama said is "one of my favorite events every year."

Kennedy established the modern version of the medal but was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, weeks before he was to honor the inaugural group of recipients.

Obama continued to lionize the slain president Wednesday evening at a dinner honoring the medal's recipients. At the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Obama was introduced by Kennedy's grandson, Jack Schlossberg, whose mother, Caroline Kennedy, is Obama's newly confirmed ambassador to Japan.

"He reminded us that everyone has the capacity to explore, to imagine and to give back to our great nation no matter the path we choose," Schlossberg said of his grandfather.

Obama said Kennedy stays in America's imagination not because he was assassinated, but because he embodied the character of the people he led. He said Kennedy was defiant in the face of impossible odds and determined to make the world anew.

"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," Obama said. "Sailing sometimes against the wind, sometimes with it."

At the awards ceremony Wednesday morning, Obama said a few words about each recipient. Of Clinton, he said the Arkansas Democrat's presidency marked just the start of his work to make the world a better place, crediting his post-presidency humanitarian efforts as helping to save or improve the lives of millions worldwide.

"I'm grateful, Bill, as well, for the advice and counsel that you've offered me, on and off the golf course," Obama said to chuckles.

As a teenager, Bill Clinton shook hands with Kennedy in the Rose Garden the summer before the assassination when he and other high school students in the Boys Nation program came to Washington.

Obama said the late Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, didn't just break the stratospheric glass ceiling. "She blasted right through it," becoming a role model for young girls, he said.

"You can't be what you can't see," Obama said. "Today our daughters, including Malia and Sasha, can set their sights a little bit higher because Sally Ride showed them the way."

Receiving the award for Ride, who died last year, was Tam O'Shaughnessy, who was introduced as Ride's life partner.

Wednesday's Medal of Freedom recipients

Bill Clinton, the 42nd president, who was also recognized for his post-presidency humanitarian work.

Oprah Winfrey, right, broadcaster, actor, activist and philanthropist.

Daniel Inouye, former senator from Hawaii, World War II veteran and the first Japanese-American in Congress. Inouye received the award posthumously.

Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the newspaper's coverage of Watergate.

Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space. Ride received the award posthumously.

Richard Lugar, former senator from Indiana who worked to reduce the global nuclear threat.

Gloria Steinem, writer and prominent women's rights activist.

Ernie Banks, baseball player who hit more than 500 home runs and played 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs.

Bayard Rustin, civil and gay rights activist and adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin received the award posthumously.

Daniel Kahneman, psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics.

Loretta Lynn, country music singer.

Maria Molina, chemist and environmental scientist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Arturo Sandoval, Grammy-winning jazz musician who was born in Cuba and defected to the United States.

Dean Smith, head coach of University of North Carolina's basketball team for 36 years.

Patricia Wald, first woman appointed to U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, who became the court's chief judge.

C.T. Vivian, civil rights leader and minister.

Presidents pay tribute to JFK 11/20/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2013 11:01pm]

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