Obama to award Medal of Freedom to Steven Spielberg, Stephen Sondheim

This year's recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom 'enriched our lives and helped define our shared experience as Americans,' the president said.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo/File
Filmmaker Steven Spielberg attends the reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Dec. 7, 2014. President Barack Obama on Monday named 17 recipients, including Mr. Spielberg, of the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation's highest civilian honor.

The honorees are in for this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the list includes individuals whose contributions range from movies and music to sports and space history.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg, classical musician and conductor Itzhak Perlman, and iconic diva Barbra Streisand will be among the 17 men and women from the arts, public service, and other areas to receive the United States’s highest civilian honor Nov. 24, when President Obama will bestow the awards at a White House ceremony. 

“From public servants who helped us meet defining challenges of our time to artists who expanded our imaginations, from leaders who have made our union more perfect to athletes who have inspired millions of fans, these men and women have enriched our lives and helped define our shared experience as Americans,” Mr. Obama said in a statement.

Established in 1945 by President Harry Truman, the Presidential Medal of Freedom began as an award for acts and services connected to World War II. In 1963, President John Kennedy issued an executive order that expanded those eligible to include any person who has made a commendable contribution to national security, world peace, or American culture.

Recipients need not be US citizens – in 1991, President George H. W. Bush conferred the medal to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – but only the president can decide who receives the award.

“As such, recipients tend to reflect the personal and political interests of the President,” according to a 2004 Congressional Research Service report on the subject. “The accomplishments of past recipients have been in wide-ranging fields, including public service, journalism, business, sports, and entertainment.”

This year’s most well-known honorees include Mr. Spielberg, whose films include "Schindler's List," "E.T.," and "Saving Private Ryan"; Rock and Roll Hall of Famer James Taylor, whose hit songs include “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Handy Man”; Grammy Award-winning composer Stephen Sondheim, whose body of work includes such classics as “West Side Story” and “Sweeney Todd”; and musical power couple Gloria and Emilio Estefan.

Four of the recipients will be awarded posthumously: baseball legend Yogi Berra, a 10-time World Series Champion who is regarded as one of the greatest catchers of all time; politician and educator Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first African-American woman elected to Congress; Native American rights activist Billy Frank, Jr., who played a critical role in reaffirming tribal co-management of salmon resources in Washington State; and Japanese American lawyer Minoru Yasui, who spent decades fighting for civil rights.

The other recipients of this year’s award are former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana; NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson; baseball great Willie Mays; veterans’ advocate Bonnie Carroll; Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, the longest-serving woman in the US Congress; and William Ruckelshaus, who served as the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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