Obama honors achievers, and shapes America’s self-image

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Obama and the Rev. Joseph E. LoweryEvery president has his rough-and-tumble or mundane days, but also some that float above the norm and compel him to take stock of society’s changes.

Deep in summer’s doldrums, Wednesday was one of those days for President Barack Obama.

America’s first black president took a breather from the health care fight to honor the first Hispanic to be confirmed to the Supreme Court.

In an eloquent midmorning tribute to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Obama said that the rise of a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx, raised by a widowed single mom struggling to make ends meet, is “one of those only-in-America stories.” Her Senate confirmation, he said, “is not just about her. It’s about every child who will grow up thinking to him or herself, ‘If Sonia Sotomayor can make it, then maybe I can, too.’ “

He said that the story also serves to inspire parents to believe that “if I work hard enough, maybe my kids can have more.”

He concluded by noting that her rise renews “faith that in this great nation, all things are still possible for all people. This is a great day for America.”

Later, in the afternoon, Obama honored his 16 picks for this year’s Medal of Freedom.

“There are many honors and privileges bestowed on the occupants of this house,” the president said. “But few mean as much to me as the chance to award America’s highest civilian medal to the recipients that are here today.”

The honorees, some American and some not, represent “what we consider to be that most American of beliefs,” Obama said, “that our lives are what we make of them, that no barriers of race, gender or physical infirmity can restrain the human spirit, and that the truest test of a person’s life is what we do for one another.”

White House aides said the recipients had effected or embodied noteworthy changes in society.

Some of the honorees also touched Obama on a deeply personal level:

Actor Sidney Poitier, whose breaking of race barriers on film began preparing America years ago for Obama. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African opponent of apartheid. American civil rights leader the, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Also, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who was too debilitated from brain cancer to accept the award in person. Obama was tender with Kara Kennedy, who accepted on her father’s behalf and struggled to keep her composure. Kennedy passed the Camelot torch to Obama last year with his endorsement, and for decades the liberal icon championed the health care overhaul that Obama is trying to push through Congress. Now the decline of JFK’s last brother foreshadows the end of an era.

Other honorees included breast cancer activist Nancy G. Brinker; women’s tennis pioneer Billie Jean King; South Florida physician and homeless advocate Pedro Jose Greer Jr.; Native American war veteran and historian Joe Medicine Crow; Broadway star Chita Rivera; Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first female president, for her advocacy of women’s and human rights; paralyzed British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking; cancer researcher Janet Davison Rowley; and economist Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, who created the concept of microcredit to extend loans to poor entrepreneurs.

Another recipient was retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who as the first woman to serve on the high court helped pave the way for Sotomayor.

Honored posthumously were gay activist Harvey Milk and Jack Kemp, the football-pro-turned-Republican-politician known for working passionately across party lines.

From Sotomayor to the Medal of Freedom recipients, Obama’s choices remind how a president’s values can shape the nation’s sense of itself.

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ON THE WEB

Obama’s remarks on Sotomayor: http://tinyurl.com/lyom8h

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(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.