WASHINGTON — President Obama paid tribute Wednesday to Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, and both of them honored a presidential icon: John F. Kennedy.
Obama awarded Clinton and 15 other Americans the Presidential Medal of Freedom, created 50 years ago by President Kennedy. Other recipients included television legend Oprah Winfrey, country music artist Loretta Lynn, women's rights leader Gloria Steinem, baseball great Ernie Banks and pioneering astronaut Sally Ride.
"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 during a ceremony at the White House, echoing Kennedy's reasons for establishing the award.
Presidents Obama and Clinton later traveled to Arlington National Cemetery for a solemn ceremony at the eternal flame that marks Kennedy's grave. Friday is the 50th anniversary of the assassination that transformed American politics and culture.
Obama will also pay tribute to JFK at a dinner Wednesday night for current and past Medal of Freedom recipients.
The delegation to the Kennedy gravesite included members of the Kennedy family, as well as a former official who may soon seek the presidency herself: former first lady and secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
At the site, Obama and Clinton escorted Ethel Kennedy, widow of slain JFK brother Robert F. Kennedy; each president held one of Mrs. Kennedy's hands, and help her climb some stairs.
During a wordless ceremony on a sunny but chilly day, Obama, the Clintons, and first lady Michelle Obama placed a wreath before the twin graves of President Kennedy and wife Jacqueline.
The Obamas and the Clintons held their hands over their hearts as a military bugler played Taps, and cameras clicked away.
Jack Schlossberg, one President Kennedy's grandchildren, greeted dignitaries as they arrived at the grave site, where JFK brothers Robert and Edward are also buried.
The presidential couples later greeted members of the family. "Good to see you," Obama told one group amid smiles and hugs. Obama also read some of the inscriptions etched into a memorial at the grave site.
While the Obamas and the Clintons rode to the Arlington cemetery in the same limousine, the left separately.
Months before his death, Kennedy had visited Arlington House at the cemetery, a spot just above his future grace. He reputedly said, "I could stay here forever."
Jacqueline Kennedy made the decision to put the eternal flame at her husband's grave.
Like their presidential predecessors, Obama and Clinton have often paid homage to the memory of the charismatic Kennedy.
The Kennedy family gave Obama crucial support during his 2008 presidential campaign. The endorsement of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the late president's brother, helped Obama win that year's Democratic primary race over Hillary Clinton.
This year, Obama made Caroline Kennedy, JFK's daughter, the ambassador to Japan.
During a June 19 speech in Berlin -- site of of Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech of 1963, just months before his death -- Obama said his predecessor's words "are timeless because they call upon us to care more about things than just our own self-comfort, about our own city, about our own country."
Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign featured pictures of him as a 16-year-old member of Boy's Nation shaking hands with President Kennedy in 1963, casting it as a symbolic passing of the torch.
Even Republican presidents have hailed the Kennedy mystique. President Reagan, for example, cited JFK's support for tax cuts.
Obama's GOP predecessor, George W. Bush, cultivated Edward Kennedy's support on education and other issues. Bush invited Edward Kennedy and members of his family to the screening of a film about JFK's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
During the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony in the East Room, Obama praised Clinton for a journey that took him from a small town in Arkansas to the White House and cited his predecessor's post-presidential humanitarian work, saying, "He doesn't stop."
The current president also thanked Clinton for his "advice and counsel ... on and off the golf course."
Referencing Mrs. Clinton, Obama joked to the ex-president: "Of course, I am most grateful for his patience during the endless travels of my secretary of State."
Other Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients hailed from the worlds of politics, entertainment, science, civil rights, and the arts.
Winfrey, whose talk show transformed television interviews, reached "the pinnacle of the entertainment universe," Obama said of his fellow Chicagoan and long-time political supporter.
"In more than 4,500 episodes of her show, her message was always, 'you can,'" Obama said.
In addition to Clinton, Obama honored other political leaders. He hailed the "visionary work" of former senator Richard Lugar, R-Ind., to reduce global stockpiles of nuclear weapons, describing it as the "destruction of Cold War arsenals."
The late Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, lost an arm and earned a Medal of Honor in World War II, and went on to become the second longest-serving senator in United States history.
Civil and human rights played a large role in the Medal of Freedom ceremony.
Steinem, the feminist who began professional life as a journalist, "awakened a vast and often skeptical public to problems like domestic violence, the lack of affordable child care, (and) unfair hiring practices," Obama said.
The Rev. C.T. Vivian, a close adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., was "among the first to be in on the action" during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, from lunch counters to freedom rides to Selma, Obama said.
Another civil rights activist, the late Bayard Rustin, organized the 1963 March on Washington. Obama pointed out that history has sometimes denied Rustin due credit because he was an openly gay man.
Judge Patricia Wald was the first woman to sit on the U.S.Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
Lynn, often called the queen of country music, "gave voice to a generation, singing what no one wanted to talk about and saying what no one wanted to think about," Obama said. She is, literally, a Coal Miner's Daughter, the title of a 1980 biographical film about her life.
Jazz legend Arturo Sandoval learned to play the trumpet in communist Cuba, where listening to music on the Voice of America could be dangerous, Obama said.
Obama noted that baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Banks -- "Mr. Cub" -- came up through the old Negro League, joined the Chicago Cubs as their first African-American player, and became famous for his infectious enthusiasm as well as his 512 home runs.
Former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith — a hoops innovator, winner of 879 games — helped integrate a restaurant and neighborhood in Chapel Hill and recruited the school's first African-American athlete during the 1960s, the president said.
Science was also honored at the Medal of Freedom ceremony.
Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman "basically invented the study of human decision making," Obama said.
Environmental scientist Mario Molina, another Nobel Prize winner, has defined the dangers of carbon emissions, the president said.
Another honoree had a direct connection to John Kennedy: Ben Bradlee was a neighbor of JFK's and covered his presidency for Newsweek magazine. Bradlee later was editor of The Washington Post, making it a national political force through coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.