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Ernie Banks, Oprah, Bill Clinton receive Medal of Freedom

President Barack Obamawards former President Bill Clintwith Presidential Medal Freedom Wednesday Nov. 20 2013 during ceremony East Room White House

President Barack Obama awards former President Bill Clinton 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/ Evan Vucci)

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Updated: January 3, 2014 11:25AM



WASHINGTON — Chicago icons Ernie Banks and Oprah Winfrey were honored by President Barack Obama on Wednesday at a White House Medal of Freedom ceremony along with 14 others — including former President Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Loretta Lynn and the late astronaut Sally Ride.

Obama, a die-hard White Sox fan, lavished praise on Mr. Cub and invoked Banks’ famous quote, “Let’s play two” — three words summing up the ever exuberant Banks’ love for baseball.

Winfrey, the talk show host and media mogul who is a friend of Obama and first lady Michelle, got some early advice about her name she ignored, Obama noted.

“Early in Oprah Winfrey’s career, her bosses told her she should change her name to Susie. I have to pause here to say I got the same advice,” Obama joked.

It was an upbeat occasion — a break for Obama from the grind of the Obamacare rollout flop.

Hillary Rodham Clinton was seated front row center next to daughter Chelsea and her husband, Marc. Winfrey’s beau Stedman Graham was in a prime, off-center, front-row seat, next to Winfrey pal Gayle King, who hosts CBS’ morning show.

Former Washington Post chairman Don Graham was taking iPhone video of former Post editor Ben Bradlee as Obama put a medal around his neck. Steven Spielberg was seated off to one side.

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts was there, representing the ballclub Banks played for his entire career. So were former Cubs greats Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins. John Rogers, founder of Ariel Investments and a close Obama friend who got to know Banks through his late mother, Jewel Lafontant, was a guest along with Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill. (Wrigley Field is in his district), and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

Turning to Banks, the slugger elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977 after 19 seasons with the Cubs, Obama said, “In the sweltering heat of a Chicago summer, Ernie Banks walked into the Cubs locker room and didn’t like what he saw. “Everybody was sitting around, heads down, depressed,” he recalled. So Ernie piped up and said, “Boy, what a great day! Let’s play two!”

“That’s ‘Mr. Cub’ — a man who came up through the Negro Leagues, making $7 a day, and became the first black player to suit up for the Cubs and one of the greatest hitters of all time. And in the process, Ernie became known as much for his 512 home runs as for his cheer and his optimism and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs would go all the way.”

No mention, not surprisingly, of Banks’ 1962 ill-fated run for Chicago alderman from the 8th Ward.

When it was Winfrey’s turn, Obama said, “In more than 4,500 episodes of her show, her message was always, “You can.” “You can do and you can be and you can grow and it can be better.” And she was living proof, rising from a childhood of poverty and abuse to the pinnacle of the entertainment universe.

“But even with 40 Emmys, the distinction of being the first black female billionaire, Oprah’s greatest strength has always been her ability to help us discover the best in ourselves. Michelle and I count ourselves among her many devoted fans and friends. As one of those fans wrote, ‘I didn’t know I had a light in me until Oprah told me it was there.’ What a great gift.”

At the top of the ceremony, Obama gave a shout-out to JFK’s grandson, Jack Schlossberg — Caroline Kennedy’s son — who was in the audience. His mother arrived in Tokyo this week as the new U.S. ambassador to Japan.

This was the 50th anniversary of the award, the nation’s highest civilian honor established by President Kennedy and delivered during the week the nation is marking his assassination 50 years ago. Later on Wednesday, Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton traveled to Arlington Cemetery, where the presidents laid a wreath at JFK’s grave.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson ­— not a regular at Obama White House events — was an invitee at the black-tie dinner Wednesday night for the medal winners, at the Museum of American History. Schlossberg — who looks every bit a Kennedy, with that chin and dark, thick hair — introduced Obama. I could almost see him take that baton.

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet



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