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Obama opens JFK tribute with freedom medals to Clinton, Oprah (photos)

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama opened a day of tributes to former President John F. Kennedy on Wednesday by bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on prominent Americans, 50 years after Kennedy was assassinated weeks short of the medal’s first award ceremony.

Obama presented the medal – the highest award the U.S. gives a civilian – to entertainer Oprah Winfrey, former President Bill Clinton, and leaders from the worlds of sports, entertainment, science and public service. The late Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was awarded the medal posthumously.

GALLERY: President Barack Obama awards freedom medals    

 U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Oprah Winfrey in the East Room at the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. Also pictured is Mario Molina (L). .
U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Oprah Winfrey in the East Room at the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. Also pictured is Mario Molina (L). . Getty Images
 U.S. President Barack Obama (L) awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former U.S. President Bill Clinton in the East Room at the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. .
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former U.S. President Bill Clinton in the East Room at the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. . Getty Images
US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. .
US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. . Getty Images
US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to women's rights activist Gloria Steinem during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. .
US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to women's rights activist Gloria Steinem during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. . Getty Images
President Barack Obama awards chemist, and Nobel Prize winner Mario Molina with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
President Barack Obama awards chemist, and Nobel Prize winner Mario Molina with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. AP Photo
President Barack Obama awards country music legend Loretta Lynn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
President Barack Obama awards country music legend Loretta Lynn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. AP Photo
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US President Barack Obama chats with broadcast journalist Oprah Winfrey before presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC.
US President Barack Obama chats with broadcast journalist Oprah Winfrey before presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Steven Spielberg were among those gathered at the White House to watch the ceremony.

READ MORE: What did JFK do for the history of Canada?

“Today, we salute fierce competitors who became true champions,” Obama said, pausing to speak in personal terms about each of the recipients and their contributions to society.

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The ceremony marks the start of a day honouring Kennedy’s legacy two days before the nation pauses to remember the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Later, Obama will pay a visit to the eternal flame that marks John F. Kennedy’s gravesite. He’ll be joined by first lady Michelle Obama and the Clintons at the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

Turning to the former White House inhabitant, Obama said that Bill Clinton’s presidency had been only the start of his work to improve the world, crediting his post-presidency humanitarian works as helping to save or improve the lives of hundreds of millions around the world.

GALLERY: A look back at 50 years of JFK’s life in photos

“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. “And most importantly, for your lifesaving work around the world, which represents what’s the very best in America.”

Obama said Ride, who died in July 2012, didn’t just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, “she blasted right through it.”

“Young girls need to see role models, she 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.”

READ MORE: JFK: 50 years later

Kennedy established the modern version of the medal, but was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, two weeks before he planned to honour the inaugural group of recipients. Hundreds of noteworthy figures have since received the medal.

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In the evening, Obama plans a speech on Kennedy’s legacy of service at a dinner at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History attended by current and past medal recipients, including baseball’s Hank Aaron, astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, singer Aretha Franklin, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, activist Jesse Jackson and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Kennedy’s grandson, Jack Schlossberg, is to introduce Obama at the dinner. Other Kennedy relatives are expected to attend, including Robert Kennedy’s daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and former diplomat Jean Kennedy Smith, a former medal recipient and John F. Kennedy’s only surviving sibling.

Friday marks 50 years to the day since Kennedy was slain while riding in an open car in a motorcade during a visit to Dallas.

The Clintons’ presence at the eternal flame where Kennedy is buried is sure to spark speculation about whether Obama has a favourite in the 2016 race to succeed him.

For Hillary Rodham Clinton, his former secretary of state, her every move is scrutinized for signs of whether she’ll run. Vice-President Joe Biden, another potential candidate, plans to attend only the White House medal ceremony.