- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 9, 2005


Muhammad Ali, though unable to walk without assistance, mimed boxing jabs with President Bush. Aretha Franklin couldn’t hold back the tears. Carol Burnett pranced coquettishly for the cameras.

Having the president fasten the Medal of Freedom, the government’s highest civilian honor, around one’s neck while an announcer booms about one’s greatest accomplishments apparently does something even to those most accustomed to fame and fortune.

“All who receive the Medal of Freedom can know that they have a special place in the life of our country and have earned the respect and affection of the American people,” Mr. Bush said yesterday as he gave the awards.

This year’s 14 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, included sports and entertainment celebrities and prominent figures from the more sober worlds of economics, science, letters and policy.

They ranged from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, who designed a language for data transmission that gave rise to the Internet, and to golfer Jack Nicklaus and actor Andy Griffith.

Only one — Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier who sheltered hundreds of people from the 1994 Rwandan genocide and was the subject of the movie “Hotel Rwanda” — was younger than 60. Actor Don Cheadle, who played Mr. Rusesabagina in the movie, sat on the edge of his chair toward the back of the audience, snapping pictures.

White House stewards — and even Mr. Bush himself — stepped in to help several recipients navigate the nearly hourlong ceremony. Mr. Ali suffers from Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, and radio personality Paul Harvey, former Rep. G.V. Sonny Montgomery and Soviet historian Robert Conquest are well into their 80s.

The other winners were Gen. Richard B. Myers, the recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and baseball great Frank Robinson.

Mr. Bush saved Mr. Ali for last.

“When you say, ‘The Greatest of All Time is in the room,’ everyone knows who you mean,” Mr. Bush said. “It’s quite a claim to make. But as Muhammad Ali once said, ‘It’s not bragging if you can back it up.’ And this man backed it up.”

Mr. Ali sat unsmiling, showing no reaction. Then Bush jokingly mimed a few punches in Mr. Ali’s direction.

Mr. Ali didn’t disappoint, coming right back at Mr. Bush to make a small circular hand movement — and then repeating it toward the cameras just to be sure he’d been seen.

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