Former U.S. Secretary of State Receives Highest Civilian Honor

July 5, 2012

Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59 was among an illustrious, and “cool,” group of 2012 Medal of Freedom honorees at the White House in May. That group included Justice Department civil rights advocate John Doar, musician Bob Dylan, physician and smallpox fighter Bill Foege, astronaut John Glenn, Asian-American rights activist Gordon Hirabayashi, union organizer Dolores Huerta, professor and World War II Polish resistance operative Jan Karski, Girl Scouts of America founder Juliette Gordon Low (posthumous), author Toni Morrison, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, retired Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summit, and Israeli President Shimon Peres (not present).

The excerpted comments from President Obama below, or viewable in a White House video, explain the award and Albright’s achievements. Albright joins Marjory Stoneman Douglas 1912 as Wellesley alums to have won the Medal of Freedom.

President’s Introduction

Welcome to the White House.  It is an extraordinary pleasure to be here with all of you to present this year’s Medals of Freedom. And I have to say, just looking around the room, this is a packed house, which is a testament to how cool this group is.  (Laughter.) Everybody wanted to check them out. 

This is the highest civilian honor this country can bestow, which is ironic, because nobody sets out to win it.  No one ever picks up a guitar, or fights a disease, or starts a movement, thinking, “You know what, if I keep this up, in 2012, I could get a medal in the White House from a guy named Barack Obama.” (Laughter.) That wasn’t in the plan. 

But that’s exactly what makes this award so special.  Every one of today’s honorees is blessed with an extraordinary amount of talent.  All of them are driven.  But, yes, we could fill this room many times over with people who are talented and driven.  What sets these men and women apart is the incredible impact they have had on so many people -- not in short, blinding bursts, but steadily, over the course of a lifetime.

Together, the honorees on this stage, and the ones who couldn’t be here, have moved us with their words; they have inspired us with their actions.  They’ve enriched our lives and they’ve changed our lives for the better.  Some of them are household names; others have labored quietly out of the public eye.  Most of them may never fully appreciate the difference they’ve made or the influence that they’ve had, but that’s where our job comes in.  It’s our job to help let them know how extraordinary their impact has been on our lives.  And so today we present this amazing group with one more accolade for a life well led, and that’s the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

So I’m going to take an opportunity—I hope you guys don’t mind—to brag about each of you, starting with Madeleine Albright. 

Usually, Madeleine does the talking.  (Laughter.)  Once in a while, she lets her jewelry do the talking.  (Laughter.)  When Saddam Hussein called her a “snake,” she wore a serpent on her lapel— (laughter)—the next time she visited Baghdad. When Slobodan Milosevic referred to her as a “goat,” a new pin appeared in her collection. 

As the first woman to serve as America’s top diplomat, Madeleine’s courage and toughness helped bring peace to the Balkans and paved the way for progress in some of the most unstable corners of the world. And as an immigrant herself—the granddaughter of Holocaust victims who fled her native Czechoslovakia as a child—Madeleine brought a unique perspective to the job. This is one of my favorite stories. Once, at a naturalization ceremony, an Ethiopian man came up to her and said, “Only in America can a refugee meet the Secretary of State.” And she replied, “Only in America can a refugee become the Secretary of State.” (Laughter.) We’re extraordinarily honored to have Madeleine here. And obviously, I think it’s fair to say I speak for one of your successors who is so appreciative of the work you did and the path that you laid. 

Presenting Citation

After Mr. Obama said a few words about each of the other recipients, he presented “a small token of appreciation” in the form of the Medal of Freedom. The citation was read by a military aide before each medal was presented.

MILITARY AIDE: Madeleine Korbel Albright.  Madeleine Korbel Albright broke barriers and left an indelible mark on the world as the first female Secretary of State in the United States’ history.  Through her consummate diplomacy and steadfast democratic ideals, Secretary Albright advanced peace in the Middle East, nuclear arms control, justice in the Balkans, and human rights around the world.  With unwavering leadership and continued engagement with the global community, she continues her noble pursuit of freedom and dignity for all people.

THE PRESIDENT:  I think this goes very well with your brooch.  (Laughter.)

(The medal is presented.)  (Applause.)