By Carrie Dann, NBC News
As the nation prepares to mark the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, former president Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey were among the luminaries awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom established by Kennedy less than a year before his death.
Other awardees of the nation’s highest civilian honor on Wednesday included country music legend Loretta Lynn, former Indiana senator Dick Lugar, American astronaut Sally Ride, feminist author Gloria Steinem and baseball legend Ernie Banks. A total of 16 honorees received the award – some posthumously – in its fiftieth year.
Calling the ceremony “one of my favorite events every year,” President Barack Obama said at the White House that this year “is a just a little more special because this marks the 50th anniversary that President Kennedy established this award.”
Obama described each recipient's "extraordinary" accomplishments in detail and led a rousing standing ovation for the group.
He offered lengthy thanks to his own Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, and noted the service of his wife - former State Department chief and possible 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton - in the Obama administration.
"I am most grateful for his patience during the endless travels of my Secretary of State," Obama joked.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom – established by executive order in 1963 – is awarded to people who have made “especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” In its half-century, the medal has been awarded to more than 500 individuals.
The assembly of honorees at the White House came with a somber note, as the anniversary looms of Kennedy’s death on November 22, 1963.
Later Wednesday, Bill and Hillary Clinton will accompany the president and the first lady to a wreath laying ceremony at Kennedy’s grave site at Arlington National Cemetery. In the evening, Obama will deliver further remarks on the Kennedy legacy at a dinner honoring the medal recipients.