November 10, 2005

Bush Awards Greenspan, Ali Medal of Freedom

By Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON -- President George W. Bush praised the influence of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and boxing legend Muhammad Ali as he honored them on Wednesday with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian award.

"The era of Chairman Greenspan will always be known as one of phenomenal economic growth, high productivity, and unprecedented innovation and opportunity for all our citizens," Bush said at a ceremony in the White House East Room.

Greenspan's award comes as he gets ready to retire on January 31 after 18 years at the helm of the Fed. Among those attending the Medal of Freedom ceremony was Bush's nominee to replace Greenspan, White House economist Ben Bernanke.

Bush joked that before Greenspan made economics his lifelong passion, he was an aspiring jazz musician who showed his mathematical side by helping fellow band members fill out their tax forms.

The medal was established in 1963 and is awarded for contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, or cultural or other significant endeavors.

Bush drew laughs from the audience by assuming a mock boxing posture when awarding Ali his medal. The three-time heavyweight boxing champion, who has Parkinson's disease, had to be helped to his feet to walk toward the podium to receive his medal.

Bush called Ali a fierce fighter, a man of peace and the greatest boxer of all time.

"When you say, "The Greatest of All Time" is in the room, everyone knows who you mean," Bush said. "It's quite a claim to make -- but as Muhammad Ali once said, "It's not bragging if you can back it up."

Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War for refusing military service on conscientious grounds as an Islamic minister. He later won back his title after his conviction and five-year prison sentence were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Singer Aretha Franklin was praised as someone who "finds meanings in lyrics that the composers didn't even know they had." Franklin teared up as she received her medal.

Also receiving the award was Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered people at the hotel he managed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Others awarded the medal were golfing great Jack Nicklaus, baseball Hall of Famer and Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson, entertainer Carol Burnett, actor Andy Griffith, radio personality Paul Harvey, former Congressman Sonny Montgomery, Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, software code designers Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, and historian Robert Conquest.