Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul who has performed flawlessly on countless stages, couldn't hold back tears. A 72-year-old Carol Burnett, a television actress, pranced coquettishly for the cameras. Muhammad Ali, though unable to walk unassisted, mimed boxing jabs with President George W. Bush.
Having the president fasten the Medal of Freedom around your neck while an announcer booms your life's greatest accomplishments through the White House East Room 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," Bush said. "Our country and our world have been improved by the lives of the men and women we honor today."
Last year, Bush chose three architects of his Iraq agenda as the sole award winners and drew fire for it. The medals went to former CIA Director George Tenet, who had been criticized for intelligence failures leading up to the 2001 terrorist attacks and on the never-found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; to former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer, who took some blame for the administration's inadequate planning for postwar Iraq, and to retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who oversaw the initial invasion there.
This year's 14 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S.civilian honor, were divided about equally between 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 and Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, who designed a language for data transmission that gave rise to the Internet, to golfer Jack Nicklaus and actor Andy Griffith.
Only one Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier whose shelter of hundreds of people from the 1994 Rwandan genocide was the subject of the movie "Hotel Rwanda" was under 60 years old. (Actor Don Cheadle, who played Rusesabagina in the movie, sat on the edge of his chair toward the back of the audience, snapping digital pictures.)
White House stewards and even Bush himself stepped in to help several recipients navigate the nearly hourlong ceremony. Ali suffers from Parkinson's disease and other ailments, and radio personality Paul Harvey, former congressman Sonny Montgomery and Soviet historian Robert Conquest are all well into their 80s and appeared frail.
The other winners were: Gen. Richard Myers, the recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and baseball great Frank Robinson.
Bush saved Ali for last.
"When you say, `The Greatest of All Time is in the room,' everyone knows who you mean," 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."
As the president paid glowing tribute, Ali sat unsmiling, giving no sign he knew he was being discussed. But the president seemed determined to engage the heavyweight champ, and jokingly mimed a few punches in Ali's direction.
Ali didn't disappoint, coming right back at Bush to make a small circular hand movement and then repeating it toward the cameras just to be sure he'd been seen, reported AP.