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Fred Rogers gets Presidential Medal of Freedom

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday presented children's TV icon Fred Rogers with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony.

President George W. Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Fred Rogers yesterday in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. (Kenneth Lambert, Associated Press)

"Fred Rogers has proven that television can soothe the soul and nurture the spirit and teach the very young," Bush said. "'The whole idea,' says the beloved host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, 'is to look at the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who needs it.' This message of unconditional love has won Fred Rogers a very special place in the heart of a lot of moms and dads all across America."

The Medal of Freedom, created in 1963 by then-President John F. Kennedy, is the nation's highest civilian honor. It recognizes individuals who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States or to world peace or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

Eleven other leaders in arts, sports, entertainment, politics and journalism were also medal recipients at yesterday's White House ceremony.

Rogers no longer produces his long-running TV show but has remained active publishing books and songs for children. A playground based on his Neighborhood of Make-Believe opened earlier this year at Monroeville Mall, and he has helped lead a children's literacy campaign for the White House.

"It is impossible to count the number of lives you have touched," Bush told Rogers, "but you've made a huge impact on thousands and thousands of children. And there are thousands and thousands of parents and Americans who are grateful for your service to the country."

Bill Cosby brought a little humor into the president's presentations. Although Cosby made no remarks, he played class clown in the White House East Room, a hall that has been the setting of many a stuffy ceremony.

Cosby shot a mock dirty look to the uniformed soldier who escorted him to the stage. He studied baseball great Hank Aaron's medal, and, feigning distraction, shouted "Present!" when his turn came to receive the award. The comedian pretended Bush had goosed him as they stood together.

Bush took the jesting in stride, but appeared exasperated when he was unable to fasten the medal around Cosby's neck.

"Bill Cosby is a gifted comedian who has used the power of laughter to heal wounds and to build bridges," Bush said. "By focusing on our common humanity, Bill Cosby is helping to create a truly united America."

Aaron, baseball's career home run king, "overcame poverty and racism to become one of the most accomplished baseball players of all time," the president said.

"By suffering and sweating himself, Placido Domingo is making sure that the great music of the past will continue to delight opera lovers the world over," Bush said, before handing the award to Domingo's sons.

Another winner was former New York Times editor and columnist A.M. Rosenthal, who won a 1960 Pulitzer Prize for reporting from Poland. Rosenthal last month said the award was the biggest surprise of his life, and hoped that "one of these days they will tell me why they're giving it to me."

Bush answered the question: "A.M. Rosenthal's outspoken defense of persecuted Christians in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have truly made him his brother's keeper."

Bush called the late Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham a "forceful, courageous and deeply principled newspaper publisher."

He recalled that another honoree, Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, once told a prison warden who threatened to kill him, "'If you so much as lay a hand on me, I will take you to the highest court in the land, and when I finish with you, you'll be as poor as a church mouse.'

"The warden backed off and so, eventually, did other, more powerful representatives of apartheid, all of whom were humbled by Mandela's immense moral authority," Bush said. "It is this moral stature that has made Nelson Mandela perhaps the most revered statesman of our time."

Mandela's daughter, Makaziwe, collected the award for him.

The other award recipients yesterday were:

Nancy Reagan, the former first lady, for her continuing work against drug and alcohol abuse and her promotion of the Foster Grandparent program. Mrs. Reagan said she was happy to return to the White House after almost 10 years.

Dr. D.A. Henderson, best known for his leadership of the World Health Organization's global smallpox eradication campaign from 1966 to 1977. In 1986 he was awarded the National Medal of Science. He is currently director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies.

Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore. Through the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Moore is a philanthropic leader in higher education, scientific research, the environment and San Francisco Bay Area projects.

Author, editor and former New York University professor Irving Kristol, whose writings "helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the renaissance of conservative ideas in the last half of the 20th century ... and became the framework for compassionate conservatism," the White House said.

Peter Drucker, whom the White House called "the world's foremost pioneer of management theory" and a champion of concepts such as privatization, management by objective and decentralization.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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