President Obama bestows the nation's highest civilian honor on 16 living and deceased Americans

Credit: Evan Vucci/AP; Rex USA

Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, both of whom rose from humble beginnings to become two of the world’s most powerful and visionary leaders, were honored Wednesday by President Obama with the nation’s highest civilian award: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The honors were bestowed on a day during which Obama honored the legacy of John F. Kennedy, who created the award, by laying a wreath at the assassinated president’s gravesite as a nation remembers that terrible day in Dallas a half-century ago Friday.

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.

The other recipients were baseball player Ernie Banks, journalist Ben Bradlee, Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, country legend Loretta Lynn, chemist Mario Molina, astronaut Sally Ride, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, college basketball coach Dean Smith, Women’s Liberation Movement leader Gloria Steinem, minister Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian and jurist Patricia Wald.

“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.

Chelsea Clinton and filmmaker 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. Hundreds of notable figures since have received the honor.