WASHINGTON - Honoring the legacy of John F. Kennedy, President Barack Obama laid a wreath at the assassinated president's grave site as a nation remembers that terrible day in Dallas a half-century ago Friday. Obama also recognized a group of distinguished Americans - including Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye - with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award created by Kennedy.
Obama was joined at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday by Clinton, and each president held hands with Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, as they climbed a flight of stairs to the burial site on a steep hillside overlooking the nation's capital.
First lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton helped their husbands place a large wreath of white flowers in front of the roped-off grave site of America's 35th president, which is marked by an ever-burning flame.
President Barack Obama talks Wednesday with Irene Hirano Inouye, widow of Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, in the East Room of the White House, where he awarded the late senator with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Both couples placed their hands over their hearts as taps sounded near a U.S. flag at half-staff before greeting Kennedy relatives, including some who arrived in Obama's motorcade.
The day of tributes began at the White House, where Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 16 living and deceased Americans for their contributions in fields ranging from sports and entertainment to science and public service.
"These are the men and women who in their extraordinary lives remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit, the values that define us as Americans, the potential that lives inside of all of us," Obama said.
16 Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom
By The Associated Press
President Barack Obama honored 16 prominent Americans with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award that the U.S. gives a civilian. The ceremony at the White House opened a day of tributes to former President John F. Kennedy, who established the modern version of the medal but was assassinated 50 years ago this week as the first award ceremony neared.
A look at the individuals receiving the medal:
* Bill Clinton, the 42nd president and former Arkansas governor, who was also recognized for his post-presidency humanitarian work.
* Oprah Winfrey, broadcaster, actress, activist and philanthropist, who was an early supporter of Obama's first presidential campaign.
* Daniel K. Inouye, former senator from Hawaii, World War II veteran and the first Japanese-American in Congress. Inouye received the award posthumously.
* Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the newspaper's coverage of Watergate.
* Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space. Ride received the award posthumously.
* Richard Lugar, former senator from Indiana who worked to reduce the global nuclear threat.
* Gloria Steinem, writer and prominent women's rights activist.
* Ernie Banks, baseball player who hit more than 500 home runs and played 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs.
* Bayard Rustin, civil and gay rights activist and adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin received the award posthumously.
* Daniel Kahneman, psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics.
* Loretta Lynn, country music singer.
* Maria Molina, chemist and environmental scientist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
* Arturo Sandoval, Grammy-winning jazz musician who was born in Cuba and defected to the U.S.
* Dean Smith, head coach of University of North Carolina's basketball team for 36 years.
* Patricia Wald, first woman appointed to U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia; she became the court's chief judge.
* C.T. Vivian, civil rights leader and minister.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, daughter Chelsea Clinton and film director Steven Spielberg were among scores of people seated in the White House East Room for the ceremony, which Obama said is "one of my favorite events every year."
Kennedy established the modern version of the medal but was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, weeks before he was to honor the inaugural group of recipients. Hundreds of notable figures since have received the honor.
Obama continued to lionize the slain president Wednesday evening at a dinner at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in honor of the medal's recipients. He said Kennedy stays in America's imagination not because he was assassinated but because he embodied the character of the people he led. Kennedy was defiant in the face of impossible odds, he said, and determined to make the world anew.
"This is a legacy of a man who could have retreated to a life of luxury and ease, but he chose to live a life in the arena," Obama said. "Sailing sometimes against the wind, sometimes with it."
At the awards ceremony Wednesday morning, Obama said a few words about each recipient. Of Clinton, he said the Arkansas Democrat's presidency marked just the start of his work to make the world a better place, crediting his post-presidency humanitarian efforts with helping to save or improve the lives of millions worldwide.
"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.
As a teenager, Bill Clinton shook hands with Kennedy in the Rose Garden the summer before the assassination when he and other high school students in the Boys Nation program came 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," becoming a role model for young girls, he 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."
Receiving the award for Ride, who died last year, was Tam O'Shaughnessy, who was introduced as Ride's life partner.
Obama presented Inouye's medal to his widow, Irene Hirano Inouye.
Gov. Neil Abercombie said in a statement that he could think of no one more deserving of the medal. He said Inouye's service was the epitome of valor and the aloha spirit.
Sen. Mazie Hirono said in a statement that Inouye carried himself with humility and often deflected credit. But she said there's no doubt that his work laid the foundation of modern Hawaii.
The president made a point of highlighting those who had overcome additional obstacles and stigmatization because they are gay, black, female or Asian. He noted that early in her career, Winfrey's bosses suggested she change her name to something more relatable.
"It turned out, surprisingly, that people could relate to Oprah just fine," Obama said.
On Friday's assassination anniversary, Obama plans to meet privately at the White House with leaders and volunteers from the Peace Corps program, also established by Kennedy.
The Clintons' presence at Kennedy's grave site was sure to spark speculation about whether Obama has a favorite in the 2016 race to succeed him.
Every move by the former secretary of state is being scrutinized for signs of whether she'll run. Vice President Joe Biden, another potential candidate, attended only the White House ceremony.