WASHINGTON -- Honoring the legacy of John F. Kennedy, President Barack Obama laid a wreath at the assassinated president's gravesite as a nation remembers that terrible day in Dallas a half-century ago Friday. Mr. Obama also recognized a group of distinguished Americans -- including Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey -- with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award created by Kennedy.
Mr. Obama was joined Wednesday at Arlington National Cemetery by Mr. Clinton, and each president held hands with Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, as they climbed stairs to the burial site on a 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 gravesite of America's 35th president, which is marked by an ever-burning flame.
The day of tributes began at the White House, where Mr. 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," he said.
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.
Mr. Obama, a Democrat like Kennedy, continued to lionize the slain president Wednesday evening at a dinner honoring the medal's recipients. At the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, he was introduced by Kennedy's grandson, Jack Schlossberg, whose mother, Caroline Kennedy, is Mr. Obama's newly confirmed ambassador to Japan.
"He reminded us that everyone has the capacity to explore, to imagine and to give back to our great nation, no matter the path we choose," Mr. Schlossberg said of his grandfather.
Mr. Obama said Kennedy stays in America's imagination not because he was assassinated, but because he embodied the character of the people he led. He said Kennedy was defiant in the face of impossible odds 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," Mr. Obama said.
At the morning awards ceremony, Mr. Obama said a few words about each recipient.
Among those on an unusually star-studded list of 16 receiving the medal were the late astronaut Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space; the late Bayard Rustin, the civil rights campaigner; the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii; Benjamin Bradlee, the Watergate-era editor of The Washington Post; feminist writer Gloria Steinem; country music singer Loretta Lynn; and Hall of Fame college basketball coach Dean Smith.
Of Mr. Clinton, Mr. Obama 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 his Clinton Foundation as 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," Mr. 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.
Mr. Obama said Ride didn't just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, "she blasted right through it," becoming a role model for young girls. "You can't be what you can't see," Mr. Obama said. "Today, our daughters -- including Malia and Sasha -- can set their sights a little bit higher because Sally Ride showed them the way."
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, Oprah Winfrey's bosses suggested that she change her name to something more relatable. "It turned out, surprisingly, that people could relate to Oprah just fine," he said.
Another Kennedy relative expected at the dinner was former diplomat Jean Kennedy Smith, also a past medal recipient and John F. Kennedy's only surviving sibling.
On Friday's assassination anniversary, Mr. Obama plans to meet privately at the White House with leaders and volunteers from the Peace Corps program, also established by Kennedy.
The New York Times contributed.