WASHINGTON, D.C.: President Barack Obama presented the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 recipients in a ceremony on Tuesday, Nov. 24, at the White House. The award is the nation’s highest civilian honor. Among them were theatre artists Stephen Sondheim, Barbra Streisand, Emilio Estefan, and Gloria Estefan.
“This is an extraordinary group,” Obama said during the ceremony. “Even by the standards of Medal of Freedom recipients, this is a class act. We are just reminded when we see these individuals here on the stage what an incredible tapestry this country is.”
In his speech, Obama credited Sondheim for reinventing the American musical. “As a composer and a lyricist, and a genre unto himself, Sondheim challenges his audiences,” he said. “His greatest hits aren’t tunes you can hum, they’re reflections on roads we didn’t take and wishes gone wrong. Relationship so frayed and fractured, there’s nothing left to do but send in the clowns.”
For Streisand, Obama cited Streisand’s many achievements, saying, “She has sold more albums in America than any woman in history. She has collected just about every honor and award that there is—I couldn’t believe she hadn’t gotten this one.” Remarking on her advocacy work for heart disease and women’s equality, he said (in a reference to Streisand’s Jewish heritage), “I’m getting verklempt just thinking about it.”
Of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, whose musical biography On Your Feet is currently playing on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre, Obama pointed out their 100 million records sold worldwide, adding, “As proud Cuban-Americans, they’ve promoted their heritage and inspired fans all over the world.”
The other recipients, in a multitude of fields, were: film director Steven Spielberg, public servant Bonnie Carroll, congressman Lee Hamilton, mathematician Katherine G. Johnson, baseball player Willie Mays, senator Barbara Mikulski, violinist Itzhak Perlman, public servant William D. Ruckelshaus, and singer/songwriter James Taylor. Posthumous honors to baseball coach Yogi Berra, congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Native American advocate Billy Frank Jr., and civil rights lawyer Minoru Yasui.
“What a great blessing to be in a nation where individuals as diverse, as wildly different background can help to shape our dreams, how we live together, help define justice and freedom and love,” said Obama in the closing of his speech. “They represent what’s best in us.”