WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama paid tribute Wednesday to former President John F. Kennedy‘s legacy, joining former President Bill Clinton to lay a wreath at Kennedy’s grave and presenting a freedom medal that Kennedy conceived before his assassination 50 years ago this week.
One on each side, Obama and Clinton held the hands of Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, as they made their way up the stairs at Arlington National Cemetery. First lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined the two presidents to place a wreath near the eternal flame that marks Kennedy’s gravesite.
Obama and Clinton placed their hands over their hearts as a bugler played taps near an American flag at half-staff. Obama made no public comments, but greeted Kennedy relatives gathered to honor his legacy ahead of the 50th anniversary of his assassination on Friday.
The daylong tribute began earlier at the White House, where Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on prominent Americans including Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. Kennedy established the modern version of the medal, but was assassinated two weeks before he planned to honor the first group of recipients.
“Today, we salute fierce competitors who became true champions,” Obama said, pausing to speak in personal terms about each of the recipients and their contributions to society.
The leaders honored ran the gamut from sports and entertainment to science and public service. Mrs. Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and film director Steven Spielberg were among those gathered in the East Room of the White House to watch the ceremony.
Turning to the former White House inhabitant, Obama said that Bill Clinton’s presidency had been only the start of his work to improve the world, crediting his post-presidency humanitarian works as helping to save or improve the lives of hundreds of millions around the world.
“I’m grateful, Bill, as well, for the advice and counsel that you’ve offered me, on and off the golf course,” Obama said to chuckles. “And most importantly, for your lifesaving work around the world, which represents what’s the very best in America.”
As a teenager, Bill Clinton shook hands with Kennedy the summer before the assassination when he and other high school students in the Boys Nation program went to Washington.
Obama said the late Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, didn’t just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, “she blasted right through it.”
“Young girls need to see role models, she said. You can’t be what you can’t see,” Obama said. “Today our daughters, including Malia and Sasha, can set their sights a little bit higher because Sally Ride showed them the way.”