WASHINGTON — President Obama, attempting to spotlight those who have acted as "agents of change," announced Thursday that he would bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor, on a cast of living and deceased figures widely known in politics, the arts and sciences, sports and social movements.
The 16 honorees named by the White House include Harvey Milk, the San Francisco supervisor who led an early movement for gay rights in public life and was assassinated. Also named were the late Republican congressman Jack Kemp, a onetime pro football standout as well, and ailing Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
The president's choices, who will be honored at a White House ceremony Aug. 12, include the Rev. Joseph Lowery, an American civil rights activist; and Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop and Nobel laureate. They include a pioneer in sports for women, tennis star Billie Jean King; and the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Actor Sidney Poitier and singer Chita Rivera were also named. Among the honorees from the international scene are British cosmologist Stephen Hawking and Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland and a former United Nations high commissioner for human rights.
The White House said this year's honorees were "chosen for their work as agents of change. . . . They have blazed trails and broken down barriers."
In naming them, Obama has made a calculated statement -- just as his predecessor, President George W. Bush, made statements with some of his selections for the Medal of Freedom, some of which stirred controversy.
Among the Bush honorees: Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, two of Bush's strongest allies in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush honored former Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, a fellow Republican and author of an amendment banning public funding of abortion, in November 2007, shortly before his death.
Among the most controversial of Bush's choices: three of the central players in the run-up to the Iraq war and the execution of U.S. policy in post-invasion Baghdad -- former CIA director George Tenet; the director of the former Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III; and Gen. Tommy Franks -- honored in December 2004 as opposition to the war was growing.
Bush also honored actress Doris Day, golfer Arnold Palmer, bluesman B.B. King and many more during his two terms as president.
Obama, who ran for president promising change, said in a statement that his Medal of Freedom recipients represent that theme.
"These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds," Obama said. "Yet they share one overarching trait: Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way.
"Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens sets a standard to which we all should strive," the president said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) praised the selection of Milk. "It brings great pride to San Franciscans that Harvey Milk will receive this award posthumously," she said.
Other recipients are:
Nancy Goodman Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a breast cancer grass-roots organization.
Dr. Pedro Jose Greer Jr., founder of an agency that provides medical care to more than 10,000 homeless patients a year in Miami.
Joseph Medicine Crow, the last living Plains Indian war chief and author of major works in Native American history and culture.
Dr. Janet Davison Rowley, an American human geneticist internationally renowned for her work on leukemia and lymphoma.
Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner who has provided loans to help millions of people fight poverty by starting businesses.