By Sam Youngman - 08/12/09 04:40 PM EDT
President Barack Obama awarded 16 presidential medals of freedom on Wednesday, including one to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who did not attend the ceremony.
In a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Obama said Kennedy has been "making a difference for that soldier fighting for freedom, that refugee looking for a way home, that senior searching for dignity, that worker striving for opportunity, that student aspiring to college, that family reaching for the American dream."
There was one controversial presentation Wednesday to Mary Robinson, a former high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations and the first woman president of Ireland. Critics have accused her anti-Semitism.
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) criticized Obama for honoring Robinson. He called the decision "regrettable," saying "supposed human rights efforts at the United Nations devolved into a circus of anti-American, anti-Israeli, and anti-Semitic rhetoric."
"Our nation's highest civilian honor should be reserved for those who embrace our fundamental principles of freedom and equality, not given to one who has repeatedly denounced the efforts of the State of Israel, our closest friend and ally, in the face of unfathomable challenges and extremist attacks," Price said.
The White House defended Obama's decision to honor Robinson. At Wednesday’s ceremony Obama said she "has not only shone a light on human suffering but illuminated a better future for our world."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that Obama "doesn't agree with each of her statements, but she's certainly somebody who should be honored."
The president also honored late former Rep. and GOP vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), actor Sidney Poitier, actress Chita Rivera, Dr. Janet Davison Rowley, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Professor Muhammad Yunus, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, deceased gay rights advocate Harvey Milk, Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow–High Bird, Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, former tennis star Billie Jean Moffitt King, scientist Stephen Hawking, Dr. Pedro José “Joe” Greer Jr. and Ambassador Nancy Goodman Brinker, who founded the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation.