Oprah, Bill Clinton and Civil Rights pioneer Bayard Rustin are among the 16 who received the prestigious award today.
Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul known for her gift of gab, was quietly awed today as she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The East Room of the White House was filled to capacity as President Barack Obama recognized Winfrey and 15 others including the late civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, former president Bill Clinton, and astronaut Sally Ride, for their worldwide contributions.
Winfrey, dressed in all black, looked humbled as President Obama draped the medal around her neck.
"Early in Oprah Winfrey's career, her bosses told her she should change her name to Susie," Obama said. "People can relate to Susie, that's what they said. It turned out, surprisingly, that people could relate to Oprah just fine."
The President said that the primary message of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which ran for 25 seasons, was always "you can —you can do and you can be and you can grow and it can be better"
Winfrey, he pointed out, was living proof of this mantra.
Indeed. The talk show queen, who has won 40 Emmys, rose from a childhood of poverty and abuse to have the highest-rated talk show in television history. Today Winfrey is a billionaire and the world’s most powerful entertainer. Her empire includes the OWN network, a satellite radio show, magazine, a school for girls in South Africa and charity foundations. Most recently Winfrey starred in the critically acclaimed movie, The Butler.
"Oprah's greatest strength has always been her ability to help us discover the best in ourselves," said Obama. "Michelle and I count ourselves among her many devoted fans and friends. As one of those fans wrote, ‘I didn't know I had a light in me until Oprah told me it was there.' What a great gift."
First Lady Michelle Obama looked on from the front row, and Winfrey's best friend Gayle King and her partner Stedman Graham were also there to support her. Also in attendance were Rep. John Lewis, a 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Obama noted that former President John F. Kennedy established the award 50 years ago to honor individuals who have made "meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."
Winfrey was described as a global media icon during the award ceremony with the White House noting that, "in her story, we are reminded that no dream can be deferred when we refuse to let life’s obstacles keep us down."