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Inouye among unique Americans awarded Medal of Freedom

<p>President Barack Obama talks with Irene Hirano, widow of Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Wednesday where he awarded Inouye with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Evan Vucci/The ASSOCIATED PRESS)</p>

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to 16 recipients Wednesday morning, recognizing the achievements of a diverse group of Americans ranging from Ernie Banks and Benjamin Bradlee to Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.

The late Sen. Daniel Inouye was among three awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. Obama presented the medal to Inouye’s widow, Irene Hirano Inouye.

Gov. Neil Abercombie said in a statement Wednesday that he can think of no one more deserving of the medal. He said Inouye’s service was the “epitome of valor and the aloha spirit.”

“The people of Hawaii cherish Dan’s legacy of courage, integrity and service, and we offer our deepest gratitude to the Inouye family,” he said in the statement.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, in another prepared statement, said Inouye “carried himself with humility and often deflected credit.” She added that there’s no doubt his work laid the foundation of modern Hawaii.

Before bestowing the medals, Obama paid tribute to each recipient, saving his comments on Clinton for last and expressing gratitude for the former president’s advice and counsel, as well as his work to help the victims of natural disasters after he left office.

The ceremony in the East Room of the White House honored “individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” the White House said.

Since the medal was established 50 years ago by President John F. Kennedy, “more than 500 exceptional individuals from all corners of society” have received the award, according to the White House.

“I hope we carry away from this a reminder of what JFK understood to be the essence of the American spirit,” Obama said at the end of the ceremony. “Some of us may be less talented, but we all have the opportunity to serve and to open people’s hearts and minds in our smaller orbits. So I hope that everybody’s been inspired as I have been, participating in being with these people here today.”

Three of this year’s recipients received the award posthumously: Inouye, who in 2011 received the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II; Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut to travel into space; and Bayard Rustin, an openly gay African American civil rights leader who promoted nonviolent protest alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Inouye and Ride died last year; Rustin died in 1987.

Bradlee, 92, the legendary former executive editor of The Washington Post, “oversaw coverage of the Watergate scandal, successfully challenged the federal government over the right to publish the Pentagon Papers, and guided the newspaper through some of its most challenging moments,” the White House said in announcing the awards.

Banks, 82, who played for 19 years with the Chicago Cubs, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility. Known as “Mr. Cub,” he was widely recognized for his enthusiasm for baseball; “Let’s play two!” became his typical catchphrase before a game.

Clinton, 67, who served two terms as president, from 1993 to 2001, later “established the Clinton Foundation to improve global health, strengthen economies, promote health and wellness and protect the environment,” the White House said.

Winfrey, 59, renowned as a broadcast journalist and actress, was recognized for her long involvement in philanthropic causes and efforts to expand opportunities for young women. She has won numerous other honors during her career, including the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2011 and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2010.

Other awardees Wednesday included Daniel Kahneman, a pioneering scholar of psychology; Richard Lugar, a former Republican senator from Indiana; Loretta Lynn, a country music star; Mario Molina, a chemist and environmental scientist; Arturo Sandoval, a jazz trumpeter, pianist and composer originally from Cuba; Dean Smith, head coach of the University of North Carolina basketball team from 1961 to 1997; Gloria Steinem, a renowned feminist writer, magazine founder and activist for women’s rights; Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, a civil rights leader, minister and author; and Patricia Wald, a trailblazing federal judge who later served on the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.

West Hawaii Today reporter Chelsea Jensen contributed to this report.

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