Well, on behalf of Michelle andmyself, welcome tothe White House. Thisis one of my favorite eventsevery year, especially special this year, as Ilook atthis extraordinary group of individuals and ouropportunity to honorthem with our nation’s highestcivilian honor -- the Presidential Medal ofFreedom.
And this year, it’s just a littlemore specialbecause this marks the 50th anniversary of PresidentKennedyestablishing this award. We’re honored,by the way, today to have with us one of myfavorite people -- Ethel Kennedy --and a pretty good basketball player, President Kennedy’sgrandson, Jack. (Applause.)
This medal has been bestowed onmore than 500 deserving people. Tonight,I’m lookingforward to joining some of these honorees, as well as members ofthe Kennedy family, as wepay tribute to these 50 years of excellence. And this morning, we’re honored to add 16newnames to this distinguished list.
Today, we salute fiercecompetitors who became true champions. In the sweltering heat of aChicago summer, Ernie Banks walked into theCubs locker room and didn’t like what he saw. “Everybody was sitting around, heads down, depressed,” he recalled. So Ernie piped up andsaid, “Boy, what agreat day! Let’s play two!” (Laughter.) That’s “Mr. Cub” -- a man who cameup through the Negro Leagues, making$7 a day, and became the first black player to suit up forthe Cubs and one ofthe greatest hitters of all time. And inthe process, Ernie became known asmuch for his 512 home runs as for his cheerand his optimism and his eternal faith thatsomeday the Cubs would go all theway. (Laughter.)
And that's serious belief. (Laughter.) That is something that even a White Sox fan like mecan respect. (Laughter.) But he is just a wonderful man and a great icon of my hometown.
Speaking of sports, Dean Smith isone of the winningest coaches in college basketballhistory, but his successesgo far beyond Xs and Os. Even as he won78 percent of his games, hegraduated 96 percent of his players. The first coach to use multiple defenses in agame, hewas the pioneer who popularized the idea of “pointing to the passer”-- after a basket, playersshould point to the teammate who passed them theball. And with his first national titleon theline, he did have the good sense to give the ball to a 19-year-old kidnamed Michael Jordan. (Laughter.) Although they used to joke that the onlyperson who ever held Michael under 20was Dean Smith. (Laughter.)
While Coach Smith couldn’t joinus today due to an illness that he’s facing withextraordinary courage, we alsohonor his courage in helping to change our country -- herecruited the firstblack scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helped to integratearestaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill. That's the kind of character that he representedon and off the court.
We salute innovators who pushedthe limits of science, changing how we see the world --and ourselves. And growing up, Sally Ride read about thespace program in the newspaperalmost every day, and she thought this was “thecoolest thing around.” When she was aPhDcandidate at Stanford she saw an ad for astronauts in the student newspaperand she seizedthe opportunity. As thefirst American woman in space, Sally didn’t just break the stratosphericglassceiling, she blasted through it. Andwhen she came back to Earth, she devoted her life tohelping girls excel infields like math, science and engineering. “Young girls need to see rolemodels,” she said, “you can’t be what youcan’t see.” Today, our daughters -- includingMalia andSasha -- can set their sights a little bit higher because Sally Rideshowed them the way.
Now, all of us have moments whenwe look back and wonder, “What the heck was Ithinking?” I have that -- (laughter) -- quite abit. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman hasmade thatsimple question his life’s work. In a storied career in Israel and America, he basically inventedthestudy of human decision-making. He’shelped us to understand everything from behavioraleconomics to “Does living inCalifornia make people happy?” It’s aninteresting question. He’s alsobeencalled an expert on irrational behavior -- so I'm sure that he could shed somelight onWashington. (Laughter.)
But what truly sets Daniel apartis his curiosity. Guided by his beliefthat people are“endlessly complicated and interesting,” at 79 he’s stilldiscovering new insights into how wethink and learn, not just so we understandeach other, but so we can work and live togethermore effectively.
Dr. Mario Molina’s love of sciencestarted as a young boy in Mexico City, in a homemadelaboratory in a bathroomat home. And that passion for discoveryled Mario to become one ofthe most respected chemists of his era. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize -- orthe NobelPrize, rather, not only for his path-breaking research, but also forhis insistence that when weignore dangerous carbon emissions we riskdestroying the ozone layer and endangering ourplanet. And thanks to Mario’s work, the world cametogether to address a common threat,and today, inspired by his example, we’reworking to leave our planet safer and cleaner forfuture generations.
We also have to salute musicians,who bring such joy to our lives. LorettaLynn was 19 thefirst time she won the big -- she won big at the localfair. Her canned vegetables broughthome17 blue ribbons -- (laughter) -- and made her “Canner of the Year.”(Laughter.) Now,that’s impressive. (Laughter.)
For a girl from Butcher Hollow,Kentucky, that was fame. Fortunately forall of us, she decidedto try her hand at things other than canning. Her first guitar cost $17, and with it thiscoalminer’s daughter gave voice to a generation, singing what no one wanted totalk about andsaying what no one wanted to think about. And now, over 50 years after she cut herfirst record-- and canned her first vegetables -- (laughter) -- Loretta Lynnstill reigns as the rule-breaking,record-setting queen of country music.
As a young man in Cuba, ArturoSandoval loved jazz so much it landed him in jail. It wasthe Cold War, and the only radiostation where he could hear jazz was the Voice of America,which was dangerousto listen to. But Arturo listenedanyway. Later, he defected to theUnitedStates knowing he might never see his parents or beloved homeland again. “Withoutfreedom,” he said, “there is nolife.” And today, Arturo is an Americancitizen and one of the mostcelebrated trumpet players in the world. “There isn’t any place on Earth where thepeople don’tknow about jazz,” he says, and that’s true in part becausemusicians like him have sacrificed somuch to play it.
We salute pioneers who pushed ournation towards greater justice and equality. A Baptistminister, C.T. Vivian was one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’sclosest advisors. “Martin taught us,”hesays, “that it’s in the action that we find out who we really are.” And time and again,Reverend Vivian was amongthe first to be in the action: In 1947,joining a sit-in to integrate anIllinois restaurant; one of the first FreedomRiders; in Selma, on the courthouse steps toregister blacks to vote, for whichhe was beaten, bloodied and jailed. RosaParks said of him, “Even after things had supposedly been taken care of and wehad our rights, he was still outthere, inspiring the next generation,including me,” helping kids go to college with a programthat would becomeUpward Bound. And at 89 years old,Reverend Vivian is still out there, still inthe action, pushing us closer toour founding ideals.
Now, early in the morning the dayof the March on Washington, the National Mall was farfrom full and some in thepress were beginning to wonder if the event would be a failure. But themarch’s chief organizer, BayardRustin, didn’t panic. As the story goes,he looked down at apiece of paper, looked back up, and reassured reportersthat everything was right on schedule.The only thing those reporters didn’t know was that the paper he washolding was blank. (Laughter.) He didn’t know how it was going to work out,but Bayard had an unshakableoptimism, nerves of steel, and, most importantly,a faith that if the cause is just and people areorganized, nothing can standin our way.