LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civil honor — by President Bush during ceremonies Wednesday at the White House.
That date is also President Hinckley’s 94th birthday.
He is one of a dozen recipients on the president’s 2004 honors list, which includes Pope John Paul II, who received the award on a visit by President Bush June 4 at the Vatican. Among the other luminaries to be honored are actresses Doris Day and Rita Moreno, golf pro Arnold Palmer and Gilbert Grosvenor, board chairman of the National Geographic Society.
Word of President Hinckley’s award came in an announcement from the White House late Friday lauding his leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, both as its president since 1995 and for some 37 years previous as a general authority.
“In those capacities, he has inspired millions and has led efforts to improve humanitarian aid, disaster relief and education funding across the globe,” the announcement said.
In response, President Hinckley said, “I will be deeply honored to receive this prestigious award from the president of the United States. I am profoundly grateful. In a larger sense, it recognizes and honors the church, which has given me so many opportunities and whose interests I have tried to serve.
“To the church, to my associates and to our people everywhere, I extend my gratitude and with each of you share the honor of this recognition.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called the honor well-deserved. “You couldn’t find a better person in the world to receive it than President Hinckley,” Hatch said, adding that Bush has a “very high opinion” of the LDS faith and its leader.
Bush “has seen his worldwide humanitarian efforts as well as religious efforts,” Utah’s senior senator said. “I can guarantee you that he is well aware, as was his father, of what President Hinckley has done.”
Hatch said he was especially pleased the award will be presented on President Hinckley’s birthday. “I want to personally thank the president for doing this for this great man on his birthday,” he said.
The Presidential Medal of Honor was established by President Truman in 1945 to recognize civilians for their service during World War II. It was reinstated by President Kennedy in 1963 to honor distinguished service. Since then, more than 400 people have been so recognized.
Others to be honored at the ceremony Wednesday also include journalist Robert L. Bartley; former Sen. Edward W. Brooke; Carnegie Corp. president Vartan Gregorian; entrepreneur Estee Lauder; ophthalmologist Arnall Patz; Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz; and Walter B. Writson, Economic Policy Advisory Board chairman under President Reagan.
The award has been regularly bestowed upon leaders, activists and notables from across the country and around the world, including former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan; current Secretary of State Colin Powell; former South African president Nelson Mandela; activist Jesse Jackson; Czech leader Vaclav Havel; and Cardinal Joseph Bernadin.
This year’s list of recipients is the first to recognize two world faith leaders in the past decade.
In honoring Pope John Paul II earlier this month during a visit to Europe, President Bush described the Catholic leader as a devoted servant of God who “has championed the cause of the poor, the weak, the hungry and the outcast. He has defended the unique dignity of every life, and the goodness of all life. Through his faith and moral conviction, he has given courage to others to be not afraid in overcoming injustice and oppression. His principled stand for peace and freedom has inspired millions and helped to topple communism and tyranny.”
Wednesday’s ceremony honoring the recipients will be held in the East Room of the White House, a spokeswoman for the president said.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche