East Room

5:18 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, hello, hello.

Please have a seat.

I think I told my buddy John Kerry, for the first two years, every time I heard “Hail to the Chief,” I’d turn and look around, “Where the hell is he?” (Laughter.)

Anyway, it’s great to see you all. And on behalf of Jill, Kamala, and Doug, thank you all for being here in one of our favorite events at the White House.

Sixty-one years ago, President Kennedy established the Presidential Medal of Freedom to recognize, quote, “any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to the security of national int- — and national interests of the United States or world peace, cultural, or other significant public, pri- — public or private endeavors.”

You know, in the first class of — of medal recipients was a great, great American writer, E.B. White. Years after receiving the medal, he received a letter from someone who was losing faith in humanity. And E.B. White replied, and I quote, “Relentless- — relentlessness, curiosity, inventiveness, ingenuity have led to deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable us to claw our way out. Hang on to your hat, hang on to your hope, and wind the clock, and tomorrow is another day.”

Today, we have another extraordinary honor to bestow one of the nation’s highest civilian honors of 19 incredible people whose relentless curiosity, inventiveness, ingenuity, and hope have kept faith in a better tomorrow.

You know, we see that faith in Father Greg Boyle, who has changed countless lives as pastor of a disadvantaged Catholic parish in Los Angeles. Father, you — through your pioneering gang intervention programs.

You know, I always kid, I went to — I was taught by the Norbertines in — in a public school. Well, you know, they always were worried we were going to go to Jesuit colleges because they said you guys are too liberal.

Thank God for the Jebbies. (Laughter.) Thank God. (Applause.)

That’s what my staff ha- — hates me doing: ad libbing. (Laughter.)

Your service as a Jesuit priest over four decades reminds us of the power of redemption, rehabilitation, and our obligation to those who have been condemned or counted out. Thank you, Father Greg, for your amazing grace. Thank you. (Applause.)

For some of you today, I know from personal experience that you wish you never had to be at an event like this one without a piece of your soul having been gone.

Judy Shepard, it’s been 25 years, Judy, since you last spoke of [to] your beloved Matthew. Your husband, Dennis, is here today as well. The brutal murder of your son galvanized a movement in a — into a law in his name — protect LBG- — LB — LGBTQ Americans. Your relentless advocacy is a reminder that we must give hate no safe harbor and that we can turn it into purpose and that pain you felt into significant purpose. You’ve done just that. Thank you. (Applause.)

And, today, we honor Medgar Evers and his family’s pain and purpose — an Army veteran who worked tirelessly to end segregation in Mississippi to deliver the promise of America to all Americans; a patriot who was gunned down by the poison of white supremacy. But his spirit endures.

Joining us is Medgar’s daughter, Reena, who was just — was eight — eight years old when she walked out and saw Daddy in the driveway — was taken from her four days before Father’s Day. She’s here on behalf of the family and her mother, Mer- — excuse me — her mother, Myrlie, who was unable to attend — to travel today.

I want to thank Myrlie for her work to seek justice for Medgar and — and for forging her own civil rights legacy — not just Medgar’s, her own civil rights legacy.

In 2021, in this very room, I signed one of the most important laws of my presidency, making Juneteenth the first new federal holiday since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The first person I handed the pen to was Ms. Opal Lee, the grandmother of the movement that helped make it possible.

Juneteenth is a day of profound, profound weight and power to remember the original sin of slavery and the extraordinary capacity to emerge from the most painful moments with a better vision of ourselves. Ms. Opal Lee made it her mission to make history, not erase it. And we’re a better nation because of you, Opal. Thank you. (Applause.)

Born in Philadelphia, the cradle of our democracy, Dr. Clarence B. Jones wielded a pen as a sword and gave words to the movement that generated in freedom for millions of people. A speechwriter for and lawyer for Dr. King, he helped define the enduring ideas included in the “Dream” that will be ever for- — engraved in the ethos of America. Letting freedom ring, Dr. Clarence B. Jones. Thank you, Dr. Jones. (Applause.)

And before social media and clickbait news — (laughter) — Phil Donahue broadcast the power of personal stories in living rooms all across America. He helped change hearts and minds through honest and open dialogue. And over the course of a defining career in television and through thousands of daily conversations, Phil Donahue steered the nation’s discourse and spoke to our better angels. I wish you were still speaking there, pal. It made a big difference. (Applause.)

From finance to media to philanthropy, Michael Bloomberg has revolutionized our economy. He’s transformed how we consume information. He’s changed us. He’s challenged us, as well, to solve the toughest challenges from gun violence to climate change. And as mayor, he rebuilt the city of New York after 9/11, channeling our spirit of resilience as a nation and a beacon to the world. Michael, thank you, Mr. Mayor. Thank you for a career of service. (Applause.)

I first met Katie Ledecky in 2012. I thought, “My God, what an athlete.” She won her first Olympic gold at age 15. And though — through hard work and humility, she’s won 10 Olympic medals — 10 — 21 world championship titles and became the greatest female swimmer of all time. She continues to compete this summer in the Par- — Par [Paris] Olympics at age 27, which some say is old for swimming. I think — (laughter) — 27 — don- — don’t let age get in your way. (Laughter.) I mean, you know what I mean?

Katie, age is just a number, kid. (Laughter.) And I — and I can’t wait to welcome you back to the White House with more wedals — medals from Team USA. I really mean it, Katie. (Applause.) You’re the best. The finest woman swimmer in American history.

Jim Thorpe, a one-of-a-kind champion. I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, hearing from my grandpop, A- — his name was Ambrose Finnegan. And, you know, he — he was an All-American at Santa Clara playing football back in 1905. And I grew up always hearing about Jim Thorpe — I’m serious — as the greatest ath- — not just the greatest ball player, the greatest athlete of all time. He talked about him all the time.

In 1912, he became the first Native American athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. He set world records in the decathlon. He was a professional football player, a professional baseball player, a professional basketball player. Jim Thorpe showcased unparalleled — unparalleled athleticism, and he transcended rac- — transcended racial barriers and the power of perseverance, sheer will, and determination.

Thank you, Lynn, who is Jim’s oldest living grandchild, for accepting this medal on his behalf. He was incredible. (Applause.) Incredible guy.

After hearing my grandpop, I used to go to sleep in Scranton thinking, “God, I wish I could meet him.” (Applause.) I’m not — incredible. Anyway. I’m going to get carried away here. (Laughter.)

For most, the American Dream: to be successful in whatever endeavor you choose here on Earth. For Dr. Ellen Ochoa, this is a dream from the heavens — her dream from the heavens. A granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Ellen is the first Hispanic woman to go to space, ushering a whole new age of space exploration and — and proving what it means for every generation to dream, to reach for the stars, and to get there. And I tell you what, you’re getting there, kid. Thank you so much. (Applause.) Thank you (inaudible).

And, Dr. Jane Rigby, a daughter of my home state
of Delaware, I might add — (laughter) — she’s not only — she’s not only — the only person receiving this medal, she’s a — she is a — you know, it’s not the reason she’s getting it is because she’s from Delaware; although, I keep (inaudible). (Laughter.)

She is a groundbreaking astrophysicist in charge of the most powerful telescope ever launched into space. Did you ever see some of the images? They’re breathtaking — lightyears — millions of lightyears away.

She’s also a long-time advocate of inclusivity in the sciences. By piecing — by piercing [piecing] together and — everything that she’s done and by making sure that the grand story of the universe and unlocking the secrets of the galaxies, Dr. Rigby sparks a sense of wonder deep in our souls.

You ought to see some of the photographs — I mean, some of those telescopes. It’s — it’s mindboggling to me.

For embodying the American Dream and helping Americans reach theirs also, we want to ar- — honor a very good friend of mine, who is not here today: Frank Lautenberg. An Army veteran from New Jersey and the longest-serving senator, who I served with, Frank is remembered as a tireless advocate for consumers, public health, and safety.

Bonnie, thank you for being here to accept the medal on Frank’s behalf. (Applause.)

Teresa Romero embodies the essential truth about America: We’re a nation of immigrants where everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. The first Latina to become president of a national union in the — a national union in the United States, she made a life better for thousands of farmworkers who put food on our tables — all of them. And protecting them from extreme heat, securing overtime pay, she shows us what it means to be a champion for dignity to work.

And when — I told you, when I ran the first time in 1972 to the United States Senate, he was organizing farmworkers in the state of Delaware. And Nixon won my state by 60 percent of the vote, but I was down and championing — just learning from him. And guess what? I won anyway. (Laughter.)

But anyway, thank you very much for all you’ve done. (Applause.)

Over four decades and on and off the screen, Michael Yeoh — Michelle Yeoh, excuse me, has shattered stereotypes and glass ceilings to enrich and enhance American culture. Her roles transcend gender [genres], cultures, and lan- — and languages — martial — from martials arts to romantic comedies to science fiction — to show us what we have — all have in common. As the first Asian actor to win an Oscar as Best Actress, she bridges cultures not only to entertain but also inspire and open hearts. And that’s what she keeps doing. Congratulations. (Applause.)

Another inspiration — not just to me, but to Bob Dole — (laughs) — God love him — was Elizabeth Dole. You’re a trailblazer, Elizabeth — the first woman in nearly every public service position you held over four decades. You served — I served with her in the United States Senate. And she’s a fierce advocate for military and families and their caregivers. She’s a true partner who — and her beloved Bob was a dear friend, who I miss dearly. And he was a friend, as you know. I loved him. Thank you. Thanks. (Applause.)

Elizabeth, the country owes you a deep debt of gratitude — a significant debt of gratitude.

Throughout a defining career in public service, this guy, Al Gore, has demonstrated a love of country that showed the world how to lead. I worked with Al when he was a senator and as — when he was vice president. After winning the popular vote, he accepted the outcome of a disputed presidential election for the sake of unity and trust in our institutions. That, to me, was amazing what you did, Al. I won’t go into that, but — (laughter).

And Al has continued to serve by leading a global movement to fight climate crisis, earning him the Nobel Prize in 2007. God love him. (Applause.)

Al, history is going — history is going to remember you for many reasons. Among them will be your honesty, your integrity, and the legacy of your service. So, thank you, Al. You’re first rate. Thank you. (Applause.)

I’ve served and work closely as Senator and as Vice President and then as President with this guy: John Kerry — John Kerry. (Applause.) I was Vice — I was Vice President when he was Secretary of State. And in my administration, he led our efforts to — across the globe, the first Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.

Throughout six decades — throughout six decades of service to the nation, John, as a soldier, a senator, a statesman — John Kerry was a patriot of the highest order. I can personally attest that my dear friend has as much moral courage in his pursuit of American politics as he did physical courage that earned him a Silver Star in Vietnam. You’re the real deal, John. You are the real deal, pal. I have enormous admiration. (Applause.)

In my view — excuse the point of personal privilege — the last two guys I mentioned both should have been standing here at this podium.

A beloved daughter of a congressman and the mayor of Baltimore — as my dad, who was in Baltimore, would say, Baltimore — (pronounced in an accent) — (laughter) — Nancy Pelosi grew up knowing the power and purpose of politics. A historic figure as the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives, she used her superpowers to pass some of the most significant laws in our nation’s history.

On January 6th, Nancy stood in the breach and defended democracy. And with her husband, Paul, they stood up to extremism and absolute — with absolute courage — physical courage.

Nancy is a brilliant, practical, principled, and determined leader. Her accomplishments are overwhelming. And I predict — and I’ve said this to her for a while — history will remember you, Nancy, as the greatest Speaker of the House of Representatives ever. (Applause.) I mean it. We’ve had some great Speakers, Nancy, but I love you, kid. I really do love you. You’re the best. You’re the best.

De Tocqueville said, “If America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” That’s one of Jim Clyburn’s favorite quotes. Always grounded in faith, family, and service, Jim has guided South Carolina and our country with a steady hand and an honest heart for over the last half century. And I could say this without fear of contradiction: I would not be standing here as President and making these awards were it not for Jim. I mean that sincerely. And neither of us would be standing here without Emily Clyburn, a woman of enormous character, who we all miss.

We’re a great nation, Jim, because we have good people, like Jim and Emily Clyburn and our honorees today, all of them. My fellow Americans, Jim is the best. Thank you, Jim. (Applause.)

What I had to keep doing when I was writing these introductions is make them shorter and shorter and shorter because there’s so much more to say about each one of them, but we’d be here for 12 hours. (Laughter.) But you all know how incredible they are — an incredible group of people.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, my fellow Americans, I congratulate the Presidential Freedom of Medal [Medal of Freedom] recipients and now — and their families for their relentlessness and curiosity.

And now I’m going to make sure we provide those medals and put them around your necks. So, thank you very much. (Applause.)

MILITARY AIDE: Michael R. Bloomberg. (Applause.) From the son of a bookkeeper and secretary to a visionary business leader and public servant, Michael Bloomberg epitomizes American industry and innovation. He revolutionized the financial information industry with the Bloomberg Terminal, and Bloomberg News modernized the way information is reported and received by the public. As a three-term mayor of New York City, he transformed schools, transportation, public health, and more. As a philanthropist, his contributions on everything from gun safety to climate change remind us of our responsibility to our communities, our country, and the world. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Gregory J. Boyle. (Applause.) Inspired by his Jesuit teachers, Father Greg Boyle has dedicated his life to healing and hope. As a young priest assigned to one of Los Angeles’s most underserved parishes, he founded Homeboy Industries, now the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. It has helped thousands of Angelenos turn their lives around, connecting them to jobs, counseling, and a warm-hearted community where all are welcome and cherished. Answering Jesus’s call to serve the “least of these,” Father Greg is a testament to the power of God’s healing love and America’s enduring grace. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

James E. Clyburn. (Applause.) The son of a South Carolina preacher, Jim Clyburn is a beacon of moral clarity. A graduate of South Carolina State University, this student of history became a teacher and movement leader for a fairer and freer America. His dignity and decency are surpassed only by the love shared with his dear Emily, who marched with him, and often ahead of him, from classrooms to Congress. Through three decades in the House of Representatives, he has transformed the lives of millions of Americans by passing groundbreaking laws for all our families. Jim Clyburn is touched by the divine, and his march brings us closer to a more perfect Union. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Elizabeth Dole. (Applause.) A singular trailblazer, Elizabeth Dole was the first woman to hold nearly every position she had. Over the course of four decades in public service, she served as the Secretary of Transportation, Secretary of Labor, President of the American Red Cross, and senator from North Carolina. She established a preeminent foundation dedicated to supporting America’s military caregivers. Known for breaking barriers and building bridges, Elizabeth Dole has paved a path for generations of Americans to serve with honor and dignity. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Phil Donahue. (Applause.) (Mr. Donahue points at watch.) (Laughter.) From Irish-Catholic roots in Cleveland, Phil Donahue rose to transform television and reshape the national conversation. Over 29 years, nearly 7,000 episodes, and 20 Emmys, he pioneered the live daytime talk show, holding a mirror up to America. He interviewed everyone from our greatest stars to our forgotten neighbors, uniting us around the toughest issues of our time. Insatiably curious and accepting, he saw every guest as worthy of interest and worked to build understanding, bringing us to see each other not as enemies but as fellow Americans. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Reena Evers, accepting on behalf of Medgar Wiley Evers. (Applause.) Medgar Evers was willing to face death to give America new life. An Army soldier, he fought for freedom abroad during World War Two. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he was a crusading lawyer fighting for equality at home, investigating lynchings, organizing voter drives, and dismantling school segregation. The life he chose to live and the risks he took to do right are a reminder of the history he made and our charge to keep. In a life cut too short, Medgar Evers’s legacy casts a ray of light on our quest to redeem the soul of our nation. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Al Gore. (Applause.) Over a lifetime of service, Al Gore has been an Army serviceman, senator, vice president, presidential nominee, and a visionary climate statesman. In a historic act of selflessness and love for country, he accepted the outcome of a disputed election for the sake of our unity and the strength of our democracy. Through his Nobel Peace Prize-winning leadership, he inspires millions to confront the existential threat of climate change. He is a model of American resilience, proof that what matters most is the courage to take on a cause bigger than ourselves. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Clarence B. Jones. (Applause.) The Philadelphia son of domestic workers and a former foster child, Clarence Jones became the wordsmith for a movement. A doer of the Word, he was an Army soldier on the frontlines in the battlefield and a civil rights lawyer on the frontlines in the courtroom. Wise and unflinching, Clarence Jones’s lyrical prose and prophetic life shows us all the enduring power of the idea of America. An advisor and speechwriter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he helped write a new American Declaration to ensure “we hold these truths to be self-evident” is forever linked with “I Have a Dream.” (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

MR. JONES: (Inaudible.) (Laughter and applause.)

MILITARY AIDE: John Forbes Kerry. (Applause.) John Kerry’s public service spans seven decades and seven continents. He demonstrated courage fighting in a war and equal courage fighting against it. A decorated naval officer who volunteered for combat, he made peace with the country for which he’d fought on the battlefield. Elected five times to the Senate by the people of Massachusetts, he was the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee and came within one state of victory. The son of a foreign officer, diplomacy —

MR. KERRY: (Shrugs shoulders.) (Laughter.)

MILITARY AIDE: The son of a foreign officer, diplomacy is in his DNA. As Secretary of State, he worked for peace, negotiated arms control, and forged the historic Paris Agreement on climate change. He built on that work as the first-ever Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. His bold and relentless public service reflects his enduring belief in America, where our best days are still to come. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Bonnie Lautenberg, accepting on behalf of Frank R. Lautenberg. (Applause.) Frank Lautenberg was a patriot of the Greatest Generation. Born in a family of Jewish immigrants, he enlisted in the Army at 18 and served in Europe during World War Two. After graduating college on the G.I. Bill, he built and ran one of the world’s most successful software companies. He later became New Jersey’s longest-serving senator. As a strong advocate for consumer protection, the environment, and safe transportation, he took on the danger of secondhand smoke and fought for healthcare for people living with HIV/AIDS. When history called, Frank Lautenberg answered. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Opal Lee. (Applause.) Two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freedom for enslaved Americans was finally enforced in Galveston, Texas, marking the nation’s first Juneteenth. In that same town, Opal Lee was born six decades later. Growing up in a home that was burned down by a racist mob, she understood that history must never be erased. A teacher and advocate, she helped lead a movement with the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. More than 150 years after that day in Galveston, Texas, she stood next to another American president, who followed her lead and made Juneteenth a federal holiday. The nation thanks Opal Lee, the “grandmother of Juneteenth.” (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky. (Applause.) A humble leader, Olympian, and champion of unparalleled determination, Katie Ledecky is the most decorated female swimmer in history with 10 Olym- — (applause) — with 10 Olympic medals and counting. An athletic prodigy from a swimming family, she captured the world’s admiration with her punishing strokes and unmatched stamina, pushing through and setting the highest standards for some of the toughest races ever known. Powered by faith, family, and teamwork, Katie Ledecky is a symbol of perseverance and strength with a heart of gold that shines for the nation and for the world. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.)

THE PRESIDENT: They once told me (inaudible). (Laughter.) (Applause.)

MILITARY AIDE: Ellen Ochoa. (Applause.) A granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Ellen Ochoa lived up to their dreams that anything is possible in America. The first in her family to go to college, she became a groundbreaking aeronautical engineer, inventor, and astronaut on her way to becoming the first Hispanic woman to travel to space. In addition to nearly 1,000 hours in orbit, she is the second woman to serve as director of NASA’s renowned Johnson Space Center. A beloved trailblazer and mentor, Dr. Ochoa continues to inspire people around the world to reach for the stars and achieve their dreams. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi. (Applause.) After raising five children with her beloved husband, Paul, and leading the California Democratic Party, Nancy Pelosi became San Francisco’s tireless champion in Congress. As the first woman Speaker of the House, she has shepherded some of our nation’s most consequential laws by keeping coalitions together and standing with and up to presidents of both parties. (Laughter.) Her resolve on January 6th, 2021, helped guide America through one of our darkest days. For her efforts to protect freedom and democracy, Nancy Pelosi will be known forever as the greatest Speaker of the House in American history. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Jane Rigby. (Applause.) A daughter of the great State of Delaware, Jane Rigby’s passion for astronomy began as a child peering at the stars through a small telescope in a soybean field. Following her instinct and imagination, she has become a pioneering astrophysicist, now managing the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful telescope ever launched into space. A brilliant and prolific author, Dr. Rigby is an inspiration and tireless champion for the LGBTQI+ community. In both her professional and personal life, Dr. Rigby reminds us to never lose our sense of wonder, hope, and spirit of adventure as Americans. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.)

THE PRESIDENT: (Inaudible.) (Laughter.) (Applause.)

MILITARY AIDE: Teresa Romero. (Applause.) A trailblazing labor leader, Teresa Romero is a champion for farmworkers across the fields, orchards, and vineyards of America who feed and fuel our nation. Born in Mexico, she has built an American life in service to others, standing up for one of our most vulnerable yet essential groups of workers and giving them the voice, hope, and inspiration to push for change. With grace under fire, her fight for safe working conditions, fair pay, and a path to citizenship is bringing us closer to realizing the full promise of America as a nation of immigrants. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Judy Shepard. (Applause.) Judy Shepard took a mother’s most profound pain and turned her son’s memory into a movement. Matthew Shepard’s brutal death 25 years ago shocked the conscience of our nation and galvanized millions of Americans to stand against anti-LGBTQI+ hate. Together, with her husband, Dennis, their courageous advocacy has since driven tremendous progress in our laws and culture, giving young people and their families strength and hope for the future. The Shepard family’s compassion reflects the best of America, where everyone is equally deserving of dignity and respect. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Gail Lynn Hannon, accepting on behalf of James Francis Thorpe. (Applause.) Jim Thorpe was the country’s original multisport athlete and one of the greatest stars in American history. A member of the Sac and Fox Nation, he embodied his given name, “Bright Path,” and became the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal. He broke the world record in the decathlon and captured the public’s awe as a professional football, baseball, and basketball player. He demonstrated moral courage time and time again as he overcame shameful bigotry. Jim Thorpe’s story reminds us of enduring contributions of Tribal history to American history and the ongoing work of healing the souls of our nations. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

Michelle Yeoh. (Applause.) Michelle Yeoh is one of the most acclaimed actresses of our time. For four decades, she has faced and shattered stigma and stereotypes to forge a groundbreaking career as one of the most versatile performers in the world, becoming the first Asian to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Her efforts to advance gender equality, conservation issues, and global health have been felt around the world. Equal parts performer and pioneer, Michelle Yeoh continues to enrich American culture and inspires us to believe in possibilities on the big screen and beyond. (Applause.)

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: I tell you what, it makes you proud to be an American, doesn’t it? (Applause.)

Let’s give one more round of applause for this year’s Presidential Freedom recipients. (Applause.)

6:05 P.M. EDT

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