WASHINGTON, July 9 (UPI) -- Baseball great Hank Aaron beamed, comedian Bill Cosby clowned tentatively and former first Lady Nancy Reagan exuded humility at the White House Tuesday when they were bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.
"Each of these men and women has enriched the life of America and the world," President Bush said at a special ceremony in the East Room. "And we're honored to have them with us here today.
"The Presidential Medal of Freedom, established by President Kennedy in 1963, recognizes individuals who have made 'an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.' I'm sure you'll agree that today's Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients richly deserve their honor."
Others receiving the gold medal were opera singer Placido Domingo, Management guru Dr. Peter Drucker, former World Health Organization Director Dr. D.A. Henderson, author and professor Irving Kristol, former South African President Nelson Mandela, Gordon Moore, co-founder of the Intel Corp. and Fred Rogers, who hosted the childrens' television program "Mister Rodgers' Neighborhood" for over three decades.
Washington Post Publisher Katherine Graham received the award posthumously.
Domingo could not attend the ceremony because of prior commitments, but the medal was presented to his son Alvaro.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom was actually established by President Harry S. Truman in 1945 to recognize civilians for their service to the country during World War II.
President John F. Kennedy reinstated it, and it is now awarded to non-citizens depending on their achievements.
President Bush Tuesday praised Aaron not only for his baseball prowess, but for his defiance of racism and help in overcoming and then dismantling the color bar in sports.
Bill Cosby, Bush said "used the power of laughter to heal wounds and to build bridges ... by focusing on our common humanity."
Reagan was praised for, among other things, her anti-drug work in the White House and efforts in California on behalf of imprisoned or missing U.S. troops in Vietnam.
Each of the 12 recipients or their representatives were taken to the front of the chandeliered room by a military escort. President Bush, after an aide read the recipient's citation, then placed the gold medal around the person's neck ... except for Cosby.
The president, after fumbling ineffectively to secure the two ribbon strands around the comedian's neck, finally handed it to him.