Maya Angelou, George H. W. Bush among those who received Medal of Freedom

Maya Angelou and George H. W. Bush were among those to receive the highest civilian honor in the US. President Obama awarded George H. W. Bush, athletes, civil rights activists, humanitarians, and artists such as Maya Angelou the Medal of Freedom.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Maya Angelou seen being kissed by President Barack Obama after being awarded the 2010 Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington Tuesday.

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."

This year's recipients, who include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, "reveal the best of who we are and who we aspire to be," Obama said at a White House ceremony.

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:

Maya Angelou, an author and poet who wrote and recited one of her works at former President Bill Clinton's inauguration.

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

Yo-Yo Ma, a world renowned cellist and 16-time Grammy award winner who is known for his interpretations of Bach and Beethoven. He played at Obama's inauguration and at other White House events.

Sylvia Mendez, a civil rights activist of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent

Bill Russell, the former captain of the Boston Celtics professional basketball team and first black man to become an National Basketball Association coach.

Jean Kennedy Smith, a member of the Kennedy political clan and former ambassador to Ireland.

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