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War in Syria?; Radiation Found Off Coast of California; Live Feed: Barack Obama Awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Aired May 29, 2012 - 15:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: And now, as we roll on, top of the hour, I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you so much for being with me here on this Tuesday.

A lot happening at this moment. Let's just get right to it.

First, quick reminder. Take a look here, live pictures at the White House. It is the room moving about. President Obama is going to be giving out 13 awards. This is the highest award any civilian can get. I'm talking about the Presidential Medal of Freedom. So he's going to be giving that out 13 times.

You're going to certainly recognize a couple of the faces here, rock legend Bob Dylan, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn, Tennessee basketball legend Pat Summitt. Those are just a couple of the names. We will bring that ceremony to you live, so definitely stick around for that.

But, first, want to take you to the Mideast, Syria's dreadful spiral into an all-out war. They've got fighting all across the country today. But we are getting these new details here about the massacre that happened in Syria Friday night, in total, 108 victims, 49 of whom were children.

Today, the United Nations is saying, yes, it is clear beyond doubt that the Syrian government played a role here.

And I want to show you this. This is newly acquired video. It shows when and where it happened. I want you to listen. You hear that? This is Friday evening, the Syrian city of Houla. You can hear the screams, the tank shell exploding. But that is not the way most of the victims died here. Take a listen.


RUPERT COLVILLE, U.N. HUMAN RIGHTS OFFICE: A fairly small number appear to have been killed by shelling, artillery and tank fire, which took place over a period of more than 12 hours.

But the majority appear to have been the result of house-to-house summary executions of armed men going into houses and killing men, women and children inside.


BALDWIN: That's an astonishing charge by the U.N., which now is saying the Syrian government massacred women and children.

Let's go to Washington, Hala Gorani of CNN International.

It's a shocking charge, is it not, Hala, to hear this from the United Nations?

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is. And it's implicating the government forces in Syria, the government of Syria.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad is denying that it had anything to do with it, employing once again that narrative we have heard from the beginning of this crisis that armed terrorist gangs are responsible. But a 10-year-old boy spoke to Human Rights Watch and said he saw government forces enter his home and execute a 13-year-old cousin.

And we have heard from other witnesses on the ground as well that government forces, including the irregular militia, called the Shabiha, were responsible for some of these house-to-house assassinations and executions that happened in Houla.

I need to put this in context for you. Houla is not far from Homs, which suffered more than a month of government shelling. And parts of this town are controlled by anti-Assad Free Syrian Army rebels. And this is part of the reason that it's been targeted so hard.

But this level of horror, Brooke, of Shabiha or anyone else entering the homes of civilians and slitting the throats of 5-, 7-, 8- year-old children, this is something that has shocked absolutely the entire world and for good reason. As a result of this -- and I was going to say, a result of this , these ambassadors from certain countries have been expelled, Syrian ambassadors in certain Western countries, Brooke.

BALDWIN: That's shocking, but I want to point something out. This is something also shocking in a much different way that we came across today.

So, this Russian newspaper "Pravda" -- "Pravda" newspaper, they're questioning the authenticity of some of the video that shows, as you mentioned, these child-age victims. It's in fact using the term photographic manipulation.

"Pravda" goes on to say, and I'm going to quote this newspaper -- quote -- "The only question remains is whether this massacre was committed by Syrian rebels or by the British and American special forces reportedly already inside the country."

Before I ask you the question here, it's worth just reminding everyone that it was the Russians who ran cover for Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia as he massacred those Bosnian Muslims. Now it appears that they're essentially doing the same thing for Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Are the Russians not complicit in this killing and can they not be held accountable?

GORANI: Well, that's an international legal matter that I can't address.

But, diplomatically, Russia is very much aligned with Syria. They're very much on the side of the Syrian regime. There are reports that arms are still being shipped to Syria from Russia via the Syrian port of Tartous. As far as Russia and Iran as well closer to Syria, those are very close diplomatic allies. They have vetoed two resolutions condemning Syria at the United Nations.

But an interesting shift did happen with regards to the nonbinding statement that was adopted by the U.N. Security Council after the Houla massacre. Russia supported it. It doesn't mean that Russia is on the verge, for instance, of putting pressure on the Assad regime and asking Bashar al-Assad to step down, but it does mean that in the aftermath of this shocking massacre of civilians, that Russia felt compelled at least to join members of the U.N. Security Council and condemn the killing.

That said, we heard from the foreign minister of Russia, Sergei Lavrov, say, look, you need to investigate this killing in Houla and it's possible that other actors were involved, and a much more tempered nuanced statement than we're hearing from France, who called it an odious crime and expelled the Syrian ambassador, Lamia Shakkour, from Paris, though her case is a little bit more complicated because she's also an ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. So it could take longer than 72 hours for her to be thrown out of the country.


BALDWIN: Still, this Russian newspaper to imply photographic manipulation, that's a whole other story. We will stay on it.


BALDWIN: But, Hala Gorani, I really appreciate you putting this in context for us, this massacre, 49 children killed. Hala, thank you.

A lot more for us over the next hour. Watch this.


BALDWIN: It's known as the Flame, a powerful virus infecting computers and, like James bond, its expertise is spying.

Plus, forget debris. Radiation from Japan's nuclear crisis now found in fish off the coast of California.

And Ben Stein says not only will the American economy not grow this year; he predicts the U.S. Treasury could default. So he's got some ideas to spur a recovery.



BALDWIN: One of the world's biggest banks, the U.S. Treasury, may have no way around default. This is according to economist Ben Stein, who says the debt is so large, America won't be able to pay it off without major changes to our tax system.

So let's bring him in, friend of our show, Ben Stein, joins me line from Los Angeles.

And, Ben Stein, nice to see you.


BALDWIN: I read your diary entry in "The American Spectator," this conservative publication. And I have got to be honest. It's depressing. Why is...

STEIN: It's extremely depressing.

BALDWIN: It's extremely depressing.

STEIN: It's really, really depressing.


BALDWIN: So, given that, why do you think the U.S. Treasury is in such dire straits?

STEIN: Well, we are spending $4 billion -- billion, not million -- billion a day more than we're taking in, in order to stimulate the economy.

It's not working very well, although we don't know what would happen if we didn't spend that extra $4 billion a day. We are adding to the national debt at the rate of roughly -- very roughly $1.4 trillion a year. We couldn't even pay it off before when it was $5 trillion. Now it's $15 trillion.

It took the U.S. 224 years to get up to $5 trillion in national debt. In the next 10 -- sorry -- in roughly the next 10 years, we had another triple that -- we made that triple to $15 trillion.


STEIN: There's just no way we can pay off the debt.

We will either have to have a massive inflation in which the price level rises in a way that tortures people or we are going to have to simply default on the debt. There's just no other way out. I'm not saying it's going this year, next year, five years. It's going to happen.

BALDWIN: Hang on, because I know despite this doomsday picture that you write all about in your article, I read a couple of different quotes. I just want to rattle these off from different Republican governors, Republican here.

STEIN: Go ahead.

BALDWIN: Virginia Republican governor: "Jobs and opportunities are thriving again. Virginia is growing strong. So is our future."

Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich saying: "We're alive again, we're out of the ditch, we're growing."

One more, Nevada Republican Governor Brian Sandoval: "Nevada on the move again. We're seeing signs, some large, some small, of economic improvement."

Are they wrong then?

STEIN: Well, we are seeing some signs of economic improvement and we're seeing also some signs of not economic improvement.

Whatever tiny little bits of economic improvement there are, they are not enough to generate enough revenue to allow us to start paying off the national debt. At a certain point, the national debt will rise to such a level that not even the Chinese, not even the Japanese, not even the British will buy our debt.

It will have all to be financed by printing money from the Federal Reserve. That's a recipe for Weimar, Germany's, super, hyper- inflation. So we have our choice. We can either adopt ideas like the incredibly good ideas of the Simpson/Bowles commission and try to restrict spending and increase taxes, or we can just head off the cliff. We will -- we probably will eventually head off the cliff.


BALDWIN: Well, let's avoid the cliff, let's avoid the cliff. And I just want to get straight to a couple of these ideas. You have these ideas in this article, ways to avoid this negative growth.

And I want to begin just with this, number one, seems the meatiest, if I may, so I just want to quote you. Quote -- you write, "Taxes cut automatically when unemployment reaches uncomfortable levels. That would yielded a deficit and government spending to stimulate demand. Taxes raised to create a surplus when and if there's ever a frothy recovery that would take money out of the system and retard demand."

Let's keep the quote up on the screen, because I want to ask you about a couple -- two words you use, these two adjectives, uncomfortable levels. Let me begin with that. What is uncomfortable?

STEIN: Well, I think uncomfortable is any level above 6 percent. Certainly, a 4 percent level would be quite comfortable at this stage, although not comfortable for people who are unemployed.

But when we're up around 8 percent with very large numbers of people leaving the labor force because they're discouraged, that's definitely uncomfortable. The problem is, if we keep taxes low, which I think we have to do, we are adding to the debt at a colossal level, a colossal rate.

So I have to say frankly with the greatest possible respect to the people from the Republicans and Democrats, we have gotten ourselves in a box and there's no way out of that box it seems to me except some kind of default or some kind of large inflation. Once we have gotten that incredibly painful step out of the way, then we're going to have to go to the old-time religion of balancing budgets over the cycle, deficits when the employment situation is poor, surpluses when it's good.

And I want to give credit to my Arkansan friend Mr. Clinton, law school classmate, that he had the right idea.

BALDWIN: Yes, he created a lot of jobs, didn't he?


STEIN: He did a great job. He did a great job economically, a great job.

BALDWIN: Yes. Yes.

We will see who gets that job come November. They have quite the task when it comes to the economy either way you look at it

STEIN: It's an impossible task.


BALDWIN: Who do you think will win, quickly?

STEIN: Obama.


Ben Stein, thank you. See you next time.


STEIN: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Record low mortgage rates have many of you considering refinancing your home. Poppy Harlow has some information you need in today's "Help Desk.

Hi, Poppy.


POPPY HARLOW, CNNMONEY. COM CORRESPONDENT: Hey there. All right, we're talking about mortgages on the "Help Desk" today, very important, especially right now.

With me, Ryan Mack is the president of Optimum Capital Management. Stacy Francis is a financial adviser and president of Francis Financial.

Stacy, we got this question in from Michelle in Wisconsin. Here's what she wrote: "I have about five year left on a 15-year mortgage at 5.25 percent. Is it worth it for me to refinance right now."

So, we're at pretty record lows when it comes to rates right now. So it might be worth it, right?

STACY FRANCIS, FINANCIAL ADVISER: Yes. Actually, she has two options. She can refinance for the amount that she has now.

She may even get two percentage points better and go ahead and really have an amazing monthly savings.

The second thing that she can do is actually take out a larger mortgage. If she finds that she hasn't fully cushioned her emergency fund or put more in retirement, it might be a good opportunity for her to take out a larger mortgage and still be paying at the lower rate than she is now.

HARLOW: But I wonder -- and, Ryan, weigh in, what she should take out, an ARM or a fixed? Because when we think of ARM, at least for me, I just sort of shutter and I think that's too risky right now, but given rates?

RYAN MACK, PRESIDENT, OPTIMUM CAPITAL MANAGEMENT: I mean, granted, the mortgage industry has created different mortgages to make home purchasing a lot easier. But that can be a blessing and a curse at the same time.


MACK: I think for ARMs and for individuals who plan to stay in their piece of property for five years or less and they plan on moving pretty quickly, then that might be suitable.

I'm more of a traditional type of guy. I like that 20 percent down of what -- paying my payments, fixed-type mortgage. That's actually the better, more responsible way to go as far as I'm concerned.

HARLOW: All right, thanks, guys. Appreciate it.

If you're watching and you have a question, send us an e-mail at -- send it back to you.


BALDWIN: Poppy Harlow, thank you.

Forget the debris -- crews now finding radiation in, of all places, fish, fish off the coast of California, radiation of course from that nuclear crisis in Japan last year.

Plus, new guidelines for hormone replacement therapy. We're going to sort through the on again-off again regulations and the warnings for you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BALDWIN: Happening now: As primary voters in Texas are hitting the booth, word of a shooting near one of these polling stations. This is video here from the scene.

Here's what we know right now. This campaign worker was reportedly shot in his leg and the suspect is still on the run. This happened in San Juan, Texas. You can see here by the map it's very, very close there to the Mexican border.

We are told the worker is OK. Voting is still under way. This happened across the street actually from this polling place. No word yet as to what sparked the shooting.

And before we go to break, live pictures. Let's sneak a peak here. This is the East Room of the White House, a lot of family members, members of the press here watching, waiting, as we're about to see -- and we're going to take it live -- the president bestowing this massive honor, the highest honor to any civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He's going to giving it out to 13 individuals here, some posthumously, some there in the room. We will do that in just a moment.


BALDWIN: A couple stories here. Radiation levels in tuna suddenly higher than normal -- normal, if I can say that -- and new concerns about hormone replacement therapy. Time to play "Reporter Roulette."

First to Casey Wian Los Angeles.

So I hear this about bluefin tuna. This is a very high, fine grade of tuna. Should people be worried about eating it?

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to the scientists, Brooke, they shouldn't be worried, at least not yet.

Here's what they found. Last year, 15 bluefin tuna caught off the coast of San Diego were found by researchers to contain 10 times the normal level of radiation that have been found in these bluefin tuna in previous years. Now, they say that that's a big surprise because they expected the radiation to dissipate as the tuna made their way all the way across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to the coast of California.

Now, they stress that the levels of radiation that they found were only 3 percent higher than the level of radiation that sort of naturally exists in the ocean. And to compare it to something that a lot of people relate to, I had a banana this morning. That banana contained 10 times more radiation than these bluefin tuna did.


WIAN: But what they're very much concerned about is the tuna that they're now going to catch this summer, because those were much younger when they were exposed to the radiation in Japan. They still need to test those, but say that for now the bluefin tuna, no matter where you get it from, is safe to eat.


BALDWIN: Is fine, is fine, OK. You should be eating more than a banana for breakfast, by the way, but that's another segment. Casey Wian, thank you so much.

Next on "Reporter Roulette," we are going to talk to medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen with these questions here on hormone replacement therapy.

So, we're talking menopause.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Let's talk about menopause, shall we?

BALDWIN: Let's go there.

COHEN: Let's go there. Absolutely.

So, it used to be, like sort of in our mothers' day, that they would tell women, menopause, go on hormones, stay on them for the rest of your life.

BALDWIN: Feel young.

COHEN: Feel young, forever young. You won't get heart disease.

BALDWIN: The song.

COHEN: Right. I won't sing it. You won't get heart disease. You won't get dementia. You will be just like you were when you were 25 or some form thereof.

BALDWIN: Not good advice?

COHEN: Right, not good advice. And we have known this for some time now, that long term, hormone replacement therapy, in hopes of avoiding the diseases of aging, like heart disease, doesn't work and, in fact, puts you at higher risk for getting all sorts of bad things.

Bad things that it puts you at a higher risk for, having a stroke. It puts you at a higher risk for dementia. It puts you at a higher risk for all sorts of things.

What the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is saying now is really not great to take it long term.

BALDWIN: At all?

COHEN: Well, here's -- there's a caveat.



COHEN: She feels the caveat coming on. Right? I could see by your face.

BALDWIN: I feel it.

COHEN: So the caveat is, if a woman is just starting menopause and let's say she's having terrible hot flashes, and she's having trouble even functioning, taking low levels of hormone replacement therapy for a short period of time...

BALDWIN: That's the key. Finite.

COHEN: That's the key, finite -- may work, that that may be a good idea.

And some women swear by it and many doctors say it's perfectly fine. Be an empowered patient. Talk to your doctor. But before you do, go to, because we have got a whole sort of laying out the land and laying out everything there on hormone replacement therapy.

But long term, probably not such a great idea. Short term, might be a good thing.

BALDWIN: Got it.

Elizabeth Cohen, thank you.

COHEN: Thanks.

BALDWIN: And that's your "Reporter Roulette" here.

Still to come, a family outing to a baseball game turns into this all-out brawl and it's a retired firefighter actually who is the one stepping forward saying he was beaten up for telling these drunks to leave his family alone. And he is now suing. Does he have a case? We're "On the Case."


BALDWIN: You can hear and see everyone gathering and waiting and seated. We are minutes away. I have one eye on this. You can see empty chairs we're about to see the president here. This is the eastern wing of the house, a tremendous, tremendous honor for these 13 Americans who will be receiving the highest level, the highest honor for any civilian, that being the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And that should happen any moment now. As soon as we see the president and some of these recipients, including Bob Dylan, Madeleine Albright, John Glenn, Coach Pat Summitt, we will take it live. So stick around for that.

But for now, I will move on. And talk about this beat down at the ballpark. This retired New York City fire fighter is suing the New York Yankees and he says he was beaten at Yankee Stadium by a couple of drunk guys and the stadium officials should of done something because these guys were wasted. This guy here he's going after the stadium and he is also going after the beverage vendor, just on a superficial level here. Does this guy even have a case? SUNNY HOSTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: He has quite a strong case. And I hate to say it because I'm from the Bronx, and you know that, love the Bronx Bombers. Have been a life long Yankee fan. But certainly he does have a case. There are these laws called the Dram Shop Laws. The dram comes from the fact that back in the day they used to sell alcohol in little small amounts of liquid called drams. The bottom line is pretty much all states have these laws, but especially New York certainly has the law that provides that you can not, that provides a cause of action rather for injuries caused by someone who is visibly intoxicated, especially if you sell that liquor to that person.

So, you know, I don't think I can stress enough the fact that certainly, certainly this gentleman has a case.

BALDWIN: So we got in touch with your favorite team today, the Yankees. And they gave us a big old no comment. Do you think this is something that we should be dealing with publicly, commenting on publicly, or should they just stay quiet and see how the whole thing plays out?

HOSTIN: Well, I'm quite sure their attorneys are saying don't say anything. Which is why hear the no comment. These are cases that are filed historically. Unfortunately beer and baseball sometimes go together. Certainly a lot of investigations have to be done. As to determining whether or not these gentlemen were, in fact, visibly intoxicated and whether or not they were sold that liquor right there in the Bronx at Yankee Stadium.

BALDWIN: Sunny Hostin thank you. We will follow it quickly. Got to get to break. We're watching and waiting the Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony it is going to happen moments away in the east wing of the White House.


BALDWIN: A spy is plundering information in the Middle East; we're not talking about a human spy here. This is a sophisticated piece of Malware virus, being called the flame. And the firm that's discovered it is calling it one of the most complex threats ever discovered, end quote. Iran is getting the worst of it. Israel has hinted that it has the technology to do this but it's not taking credit. The flame can record conversations, it can steal and delete data and take screen grabs. The Department of Homeland Security says it's analyzing the potential threat right here in the U.S.

Let's take a quick live look here inside the east wing of the White House. We are watching, we are waiting a few minutes are ticking past, I promise you this Medal of Freedom Ceremony is about to begin any minute now. We're watching that door and we are waiting for the president of the United States. Taking a quick break, back in a moment.


BALDWIN: Italians today are on edge today, not sure if the sky will fall, the ground could give away yet again. Because for the second time here in nine days they have suffered a deadly earthquake. At least 15 people died when this 5.8 magnitude quake hit northern Italy today in the same area that 6.0 earthquake hit back on May 20. Seventy people died then. And all the while there were all these aftershocks, some as strong as the actual quakes, they just keep coming and coming, one was caught on camera. Take a look.


VIOLETTA GALIA, WITNESS: I will never feel safe because we have -- we're still having quakes. So every three to five minutes.


BALDWIN: All right. Let's break away from this and go straight to the White House in the east wing. They are now introducing the honorees of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Adam Daniel Ropefeld, formal polish foreign minister accepting on behalf Jan Youngcason (ph). Richard Pleck, accepting on behalf of his great aunt Juliet Gordon Lowe. Toni Morrison, John Paul Stevens, Pat Summitt. Bob Dylan. Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you. Thank you very much. Everybody please have a seat and welcome to the White House.

It is an extraordinary pleasure to be with all of you to present this year's Medal of Freedom. And I have to say just looking around the room; this is a packed house which is a testament to how cool this group is. Everybody wanted to check them out. This is the highest civilian honor this country can bestow. Which is ironic because nobody sets out to win it. Nobody ever picks up a guitar or fights a disease or starts a movement thinking you know what, in I keep this up in 2012, I could get a medal in the White House from a guy named Barack Obama. This wasn't in the plan. But that's exactly what makes this award so special.

Every one of today's honorees is blessed with an extraordinary amount of talent. We could fill this room many times over with people who are talented and driven. What sets these men and women apart is the incredible impact they've had on so many people, not in short blinding bursts, but steady over the course of a lifetime. Organize the honorees on this stage and the ones who couldn't be here have moved us with their words. They have inspired us with their actions. They've enriched our lives and changed our lives for the better. Some of them are household names. Others have labored quietly out of the public eye. Most of them may never fully appreciate the difference they have made or the influence they've done. But that's where our job comes in; it is our job to let them know how extraordinary their impact has been on our lives.

So today we present this amazing group with one more accolade for the life they live. And that's the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I'm going to take an opportunity; I hope you guys don't mind to brag about each of you. Starting with Madeleine Albright. Usually Madeline does the talking. Once in a while she lets her jewelry do the talking. When Saddam Hussein called her a snake, she wore a serpent on her lapel the next time she visited Baghdad. When Slobodan Milosevic referred to her as a goat, a new pin appeared in her collection. As the first woman to serve as America's top diplomat, Madeline's courage and toughness helped bring peace to the Balkans and paved way for progress to some of the most unstable corners of the world.

And as an immigrant herself, the granddaughter of Holocaust victims who fled her native Czechoslovakia as a child, Madeline brought a unique perspective to the job. This is one of my favorite stories. Once at a naturalization ceremony, an Ethiopian man came up to her and said only in America can a refugee meet the secretary of state. And she replied only in America can a refugee become the secretary of state. We're extraordinarily honored to have Madeline here. And obviously I think it's fair to say that I speak for one of your successors who is so appreciative of the work that you did.

It was a scorching hot day in 1963 and Mississippi was on the verge of a massacre. A funeral procession for Medgar Evers had just disbanded and a group was throwing rocks at policemen. And suddenly a white man in short sleeves walked towards the protesters and talked them into going home peacefully. And that man was John Doar. He was the face of the Justice Department in the south. He was proof that the federal government was listening. And over the years John escorted James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. He walked alongside the Selma Montgomery March. He laid the ground work for the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the words of John Lewis he gave civil rights workers a reason not to give up on those in power, and he did it by never giving up on then, and I think it's fair to say that I might not be here had it not been for his work. Bob Dylan started out singing other people's songs, but as he says, there came a point where I wanted to say because what I wanted to say nobody else was writing. Born in Hibbing, Minnesota, a town he says where you couldn't be a rebel. It was too cold. Bob moved to New York at age 19. By the time he was 23, Bob's voice, with its weight, its unique power was redefining like not only what music sounded like, but the music it carried, but how it made people feel.

Today everybody from Bruce Springsteen to u2 owes Bob a debt of gratitude, there's not a bigger giant in the history of American music. All these years later he's still chasing that sound and still searching for a little bit of truth, and I have to say that I am a really big fan.

In the 1960s more than 2 million people died from smallpox every year. Just over a decade later that number was zero. Two million to zero. Thanks in part to Dr. Bill Foege. He is young medical missionary, did work in Nigeria. Bill helped have a vaccination strategy that later was used to eliminate smallpox from the face of the earth and when that was won he moved on to other diseases.

In one remote Nigeria village, after vaccinating two thousand people in a single day, Bill asked the local chief how he got so many people to show up, the chief explained that he told everyone to come to the village and see the tallest man in the world. Today the world owes that really tall man a great debt of gratitude.

On the morning that John Glenn blasted off into space America stood still, for half an hour the phones stopped ringing in Chicago Police Headquarters and in New York subway, drivers offered a play-by-play account over the loud speakers, and President Kennedy interrupted a breakfast with congressional leaders and joined 100 million TV viewers to hear the famous words god speed, John Glenn.

The first American to orbit the earth, John Glenn became a hero in every sense of the way, but he didn't stop there serving his country. As a senator he found new way to make a difference. In his second trip in to space at age 77 he defied the odds once again, but he reminds everybody don't tell everybody he's lived a historic life. He says all of living; don't put it in past tense. He's still got a lot of stuff going on.

Gordon Hirabayashi knew what it felt like to stand alone. As a student in the University of Washington, Gordon was only one of three Japanese-Americans to define executive order that forced thousands of families to leave their homes, jobs and their civil rights behind and move to internment camps during World War II. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court and he lost. It would be another 40 years before that decision was reversed giving Asian-Americans everywhere a small measure of justice.

In Gordon's words, it takes crises to tell us that unless citizens are willing to stand up for the constitution it's not worth the paper it's written on. This country is better off because of citizens like him who are willing to stand up.

Similarly when Ceasar Chavez sat down Dolores Huerta at his kitchen table and told her they should start a union she thought he was joking. She was the single mother of seven children so she obviously did not have a lot of free time, but Dolores had been an elementary school teacher and remembered seeing children come to school hungry and without shoes so in the end she agreed. Workers everywhere are glad that she agreed.

Without any negotiating experience, Dolores helped lead a worldwide boycott to help growers to agree to sell the country's first farm worker contracts and ever since she's fought to give more people a seat at the table. Don't wait to be invited, she says, step in there. On a personal note, Dolores was very gracious when I told her I had stolen her slogan, si puede (ph), yes, we can, and she went easy because Dolores does not play.

For years, Jan Karski stood at Georgetown knew he was a great professor and possessed a photographic memory, he served as a courier during the darkest days of World War II. The resistance fighters told him the Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto and a polish death camp to see for himself. John took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring the world to take action. It was decades before Jan was able to tell his story. By then he said I don't need courage anymore so I teach compassion.

Growing up in Georgia in the late 1800s, Juliette Gordon Low was not exactly typical. She flew airplanes. She went swimming. She experimented with electricity for fun and she recognized early on that in order to keep on with the changing times women would have to be prepared. So at age 52, after meeting the founder of the Boy Scouts in England, Juliette came home and called her cousin and said I've got something for the women and the girls and we'll start tonight. A century later almost 60 million Girl Scouts gained leadership skills and self confidence through the organization she found.

They include CEOs, astronauts and secretary of state. From the very beginning they have also included girls of different faiths just the way that Juliette would have wanted.

Toni Morrison is used to a little distraction as a single mother working at a publishing by day, she would carve a little time in the evening to write often with her two sons pulling on her hair and tugging at her earrings. Once a baby spit up on her tablet so she wrote around it. The circumstances may not have been ideal, but the words that came out were magical. Toni Morrison's prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt.

From the Solomon, Toni reaches us deeply using a tone that is lyrical, precise, distinct and inclusive; she believes that language arcs toward the place where meaning might lie. The rest of us are lucky to be following along for the ride.

During oral argument, Justice John Paul Stevens often began his line of questioning with a polite may I interrupt or may I ask a question? And you can imagine the lawyers would say OK. After which he would just as politely force a lawyer to stop dancing around and focus on the most important issues of the case, and that was his signature style. Modest, insightful, well-prepared and razor sharp.

He is the third longest-serving justice in the history of the court and Justice Stevens applied throughout his career his clear and graceful manner to the defense of individual rights and the word of law, always favoring a pragmatic solution over an ideological one. Ever humble he would happily comply on unsuspecting tourists would ask him to take their picture in front of the court and at his vacation home in Florida; he was John from Arlington, better known for his world-class bridge game than his world-changing judicial opinions.

Even in his final days on the bench, Justice Stevens insisted he was still learning on the job, but in the end we are the ones who have learned from him.

When the doctor first told Pat Summitt she suffered from dementia she almost punched him. When a second doctor advised her to retire she responded, "Do you know who you're dealing with here?"


Obviously, they did not. As Pat says, "I can fix a tractor, mow hay, plow a field, chop tobacco, fire a barn, and call the cows, but what I'm really known for is winning."


In 38 years at Tennessee, she racked up eight national championships, more than 1,000 wins -- understand this is more than any college coach, male or female, in the history of the NCAA. And more importantly, every player that went through her program has either graduated or is on her way to a degree. That's why anybody who feels sorry for Pat will find themselves on the receiving end of that famous glare, or she might punch you.


She's still getting up every day and doing what she does best, which is teaching."The players," she says, "are my best medicine."

Our final honoree is not here, Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, who has done more for the cause of peace in the Middle East than just about anybody alive. I will be hosting President Peres for a dinner here at the White House next month, and we'll be presenting him with his medal and honoring his incredible contributions to the state of Israel and the world at that time. So I'm looking forward to welcoming him, and if it's all right with you, I will save my best lines about him for that occasion.

So these are the -- these are the recipients of the 2012 Medals of Freedom. And just on a personal note, I had a chance to see everybody in the back. What's wonderful about these events for me is so many of these people are my heroes individually. You know, I know how they impacted my life. I remember reading "Song of Solomon" when I was a kid, and not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think. And I remember, you know, in college listening to Bob Dylan, and my world opening up, because he captured something that -- about this country that was so vital. And I think about Dolores Huerta, reading about her when I was starting off as an organizer.

Everybody on this stage has marked my life in profound ways. And I was telling somebody like Pat Summitt, you know, when I think about my two daughters, who are tall and gifted, and knowing that because of folks like Coach Summitt, they're standing up straight and diving after loose balls and feeling confident and strong, then I understand that the impact that these people have had extends beyond to me. It will continue for generations to come.

What an extraordinary honor to be able to say "thank you" to all of them for the great work that they have done on behalf of this country and on behalf of the world. So it is now my great honor to present them with a small token of our appreciation.