Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Mexican scientist Mario Molina were among the 16 people honored Wednesday with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The recipients are "men and women who in their extraordinary lives remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit," President Barack Obama said during a White House ceremony.
The president emphasized that this year's ceremony is "a little more special" because this is the 50th year since President John F. Kennedy established the medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the U.S. government.
Obama on Wednesday evening will host a dinner in honor of the award winners where he is expected to pay tribute to Kennedy two days before the 50th anniversary of his Nov. 22, 1963, assassination in Dallas.
During Wednesday's ceremony, Obama spared no praise for Clinton and said that, during his 1993-2001 presidency, he sought "to make sure that he made life better and easier for so many people all across the country."
About Winfrey, a television and movie star as well as a personal friend of Barack and Michelle Obama, the president emphasized her capacity to help discover the best in every person.
Among those selected to receive one of the awards on Wednesday was legendary journalist Ben Bradlee, who took the reins of The Washington Post 65 years ago and transformed the newspaper "into one of the finest in the world," bringing to light the Watergate scandal and initiating "a new era of investigative journalism," Obama said.
Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman to travel into space, was posthumously presented with an award and Obama praised her dedication to helping young people excel in fields such as mathematics, science and engineering.
Also receiving a Medal of Freedom were two Latinos - Mexican scientist and Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry Mario Molina and trumpet player, pianist and Cuban jazz composer Arturo Sandoval.
Among the other people receiving the awards were former Sens. Richard Lugar and Daniel Inouye, baseball great Ernie Banks, college basketball coach Dean Smith, country music legend Loretta Lynn, the late civil rights activist Bayard Rustin and Judge Patricia Wald. EFE