Two Democratic presidents gathered Wednesday to pay tribute to a third, the late President John F. Kennedy, by celebrating this year’s recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom—an award Kennedy created to showcase the best of his country’s citizenry.
Despite a rumored awkward relationship between #44 and #42, Obama praised Bill Clinton and thanked him for “his patience during the endless travels of my Secretary of State” (Clinton’s wife, Hillary) and his “advice and counsel… on and off the golf course.”
Yet the two have golfed together only twice in the last five years. And according to “Double Down” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, they didn’t even make it through 18 holes in their first outing. “I like him… in doses,” Obama reportedly said of Clinton.
The former president, whom Obama dubbed the “Explainer-in-Chief” after his grand-slam endorsement of Obama’s health care and economic policies during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, has made headlines throughout Obama’s presidency for occasionally offering criticism in the form of unsolicited advice.
Clinton urged Obama from the sidelines last week to “honor the commitment” he made to Americans by allowing them to keep existing health care plans, which were deemed sub-standard by the federal government and therefore slated for cancellation in accordance with the Affordable Care Act.
During a closed-press Q-and-A session with John McCain in June, Clinton split with Obama on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, saying that the president should be taking greater measures to support anti-government rebels. According to a report in Politico, Clinton warned that Obama risked looking like “a total fool” if he proceeded too cautiously or paid too much attention to opinion polls which offered a resounding “no” to the question of American intervention.
During the 2012 campaign season, Clinton called the business record of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who campaigned against Obama’s stewardship of the economy, “sterling.” The praise hit Obama at a rough time: that same month, unemployment rose for the first time in a year (to 8.2%) and showed the weakest job growth in the same amount of time.
Tensions between the two developed during the Democratic primary that pitted Obama against Clinton’s wife, Hillary, ahead of the 2008 election. And with Hillary Clinton seen as the Democratic front-runner (should she decide to contend for the White House in 2016), Bill Clinton’s criticism of Obama could be seen as his attempt to put some daylight between the two.
But any hint of trouble, past or impending, was buried Wednesday at the White House ceremony, where Obama praised Clinton’s “lifesaving work around the world” and his efforts to “make sure that he made life better and easier for so many people all across the country that were struggling.”
Among Wednesday’s honorees are the late astronaut Sally Ride, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, journalism legend Ben Bradlee, women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, country singer Loretta Lynn, former Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, and the late U.S. senator from Hawaii and Medal of Honor recipient Daniel Inouye.
The 16 recipients joined the list of more than 500 who hold the nation’s highest civilian honor. Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and longtime Hillary aide Huma Abedin attended the ceremony, as did Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, Georgia Rep. and civil rights leader John Lewis, Stephen Spielberg, Gayle King, and Stedman Graham.
President John F. Kennedy created the award in 1963, but it was two weeks after his assassination that his successor, President Johnson, issued the award to the inaugural class of artists, scholars, and leaders. The nation is preparing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death on Friday.
President Obama said Wednesday that the ceremony served as a “reminder of what [Kennedy] understood to be the essence of the American spirit.” He and first lady Michelle Obama, along with the Clintons and members of the Kennedy family, then traveled to Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony at Kennedy’s grave site, marked by the eternal flame.