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Moments from the Medal of Freedom ceremony
02:08 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

President Barack Obama bestowed the Medal of Freedom on 17 Americans on Tuesday

Some of the honorees were prominent Obama backers

Washington CNN  — 

Hollywood legends, civil rights crusaders and the first African-American congresswoman were among those receiving the nation’s highest honor for civilians at the White House on Tuesday.

President Barack Obama bestowed the Medal of Freedom on 17 Americans in a lighthearted, but nonetheless reverent, ceremony in the East Room.

He joked no one wants to be “on the wrong side of” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, renowned for her tough tactics in advancing a Democratic agenda on Capitol Hill.

Willie Mays, the major league center fielder whose career started in the Negro Leagues, paved the way so “people like me could even think about running for president,” Obama said.

And he deadpanned that he didn’t realize Barbra Streisand – the director, writer and star of “Yentl,” among other achievements – was Jewish.

“We are just reminded when we see these individuals on the stage what an incredible tapestry this country is, and what a great blessing to be in a nation where individuals as diverse, from wildly different backgrounds, can help to shape our dreams,” he said.

Some of the honorees were prominent Obama backers – Streisand, singer James Taylor and director Steven Spielberg among them.

But there was at least one Republican in the mix: William Ruckelshaus, the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator and deputy U.S. attorney general under President Richard Nixon, who resigned so the Watergate investigation could proceed.

Here’s a rundown of how Obama honored each recipient:

Katherine Johnson, NASA mathematician

“If you think your job is pressure packed, hers meant that forgetting to carry the one might send somebody floating off into the solar system.”

William Ruckelshaus, former EPA administrator under Nixon

“He became known as Mr. Clean, and lived up to that nickname when he resigned from the Nixon administration rather than derail the Watergate investigation.”

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland

“You don’t want to be on the wrong side of Barbara Mikulski.”

Rep. Shirley Chisolm, D-New York, and first African-American congresswoman

“When Shirley was assigned to the House Agriculture Committee, despite the fact her district was in New York City, she said, ‘Apparently, all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn was that a tree grew there.’ “

Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana

“At its best, Lee Hamilton once said, representative democracy gives us a system where all of us have a voice in the process and a stake in the product. In his 34 years in Congress, Lee Hamilton was a faithful servant to that ideal.”

Barbra Streisand, singer and actress

“Born in Brooklyn to middle class Jewish family – I didn’t know you were Jewish, Barbra – Barbra Streisand attended her first Broadway show at 14 and remembers thinking, ‘I could go up on that stage and play any role without any trouble at all.’ That’s what’s called chutzpah.”

Itzhak Perlman, violinist

“Itzhak Perlman was once asked what sound he lives. And his eyes lit up and he replied, ‘The sound of onions sizzling in a pan.’ This is a man with large appetites that knows how to live.”

James Taylor, singer and songwriter

“I’m proud to call the next honoree a friend as well. The truth is a lot of people say that about James Taylor. That’s what happens when you spend four decades telling people, ‘Just call out my name, and I’ll come running.’”

Gloria and Emilio Estefan, singers

“Some worried they were too American for Latins and too Latin for Americans. Turns out everybody just wanted to dance and do the Conga.”

Stephen Sondheim, Broadway composer and lyricist

“Stephen’s music is so beautiful and his lyrics so precise, that even as he exposes the imperfections of everyday life he transcends them. We transcend them.”

Steven Spielberg, director

“Despite redefining the word ‘prolific,’ a Spielberg movie is still a Spielberg movie. Somebody’s calling to see if they can book him for a deal right now. They want to make a pitch. So there’s this really good-looking president …”

Yogi Berra, Major League Baseball catcher and coach

“He coached the game with as much heart as he played it. He lived his life with pride and humility and an original, open mind. One thing we know for sure – if you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”

Willie Mays, Major League Baseball center fielder

“A few years ago Willie rode with me on Air Force One. I told him then what I’ll tell all of you now: It’s because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for president.”

Billy Frank Jr., Native American environmental activist

“‘I don’t believe in magic,’ Billy once said. ‘I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the hawks flying, the rivers running, the wind talking.’ ‘They tell us how healthy we are,’ he said, ‘because we and they are the same.’”

Bonnie Carroll, founder of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors

“Through their Good Grief camps, they bring together children of our fallen to learn how to cope with loss, to honor the legacy of their heroes – and to try and have some fun, as well. As one Gold Star child who lost her father in Iraq said, ‘(Because of TAPS), I know someone is by my side.’”

Minoru Yasui, fought curfew laws for Japanese-Americans during World War II

“Today, Min’s legacy has never been more important. It is a call to our national conscience; a reminder of our enduring obligation to be ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ – an America worthy of his sacrifice.”