President Barack Obama recognized one former president and 14 artists, athletes, civil rights activists, humanitarians and others Tuesday with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for contributions to society that he said speak to "who we are as a people."
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor. It is given in recognition of contributions to U.S. national security, world peace, culture or other significant public or private endeavors.
He said Merkel, who was not present, dreamed of freedom as she grew up in what was then East Germany.
"And when the wall finally crumbled and Germany was reunited, she broke barriers of her own, becoming the first East German and the first woman to become chancellor of Germany," Obama said.
He said Merkel's story is an inspiration to people around the world.
Obama said Merkel will be making an official visit to the United States soon and he looked forward to presenting the award to a "trusted global partner and a friend."
Some of the loudest applause was reserved for George H.W. Bush, the former Republican president who has devoted nearly 70 of his 86 years to public service, starting when he joined the Navy on his 18th birthday. He served as a congressman from Texas, U.N. ambassador, Republican Party chairman, U.S. envoy to China, director of central intelligence, a two-term vice president and one term as the 41st president.
"His life is a testament that public service is a noble calling," Obama said. Bush's wife, Barbara, and their children listened from the front row. "His humility and his decency reflect the very best of the American spirit. Those of you who know him, this is a gentleman."
A particularly touching moment occurred during the presentation for Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist who was murdered by the Taliban last August in Afghanistan. His wife, Libby, accepted and Obama rubbed her back as a White House military aide read her husband's medal citation.
Among the other medal recipients are:
—Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway. The famed investor is known as the "Oracle of Omaha" for a business savvy that has helped him become one of the world's richest men. Buffett is also a philanthropist and a leader of an effort challenging the country's wealthiest people to step up their charitable giving.
—Jasper Johns, an artist whose work has dealt with themes of perception and identity. He is considered a major influence on pop, minimalist and conceptual art.
—Gerda Weissmann Klein, Holocaust survivor and author who founded Citizenship Counts, an organization that teaches students to cherish being American citizens