By Mike Lillis - 09/20/12 12:30 AM EDT
Four years after voting to do so, congressional leaders on Wednesday showered their top honor on Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy advocate and Nobel Peace laureate who's spent most of the last two decades under house arrest.
In an emotional ceremony beneath the Capitol rotunda, leaders from both parties came together in a rare show of unity to hail Suu Kyi for her courage, to applaud her commitment to nonviolence, and to present her with the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest civilian honor the Congress can lend.
Wednesday's ceremony – which came just hours before the House was scheduled to vote to lift long-standing financial sanctions on Burma – drew together an odd mix of public figures, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former first lady Laura Bush.
The praise was effusive. Indeed, by the end of the ceremony, Suu Kyi had been included among the greatest voices for human rights of the last century, including Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel.
"Today we celebrate Ms. Suu Kyi's steadfast commitment to democracy, civility and human dignity," Boehner said in opening remarks that set the tone for the event.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a long-time supporter of Burma's Democracy movement, lauded Suu Kyi for what he called her "hidden, luminous heroism." Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) characterized the pro-democracy icon as "uncommonly courageous." Bush called her the "immovable object" that almost single-handedly broke "the legitimacy" of Burma's military junta.
And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) – himself no stranger to lengthy trials of incarceration – hailed Suu Kyi's "implacable resistance" and labeled her "my personal hero."
"I've met a number of brave and inspiring people, but none more so than the woman we honor today," McCain said. "They had attacked her, jailed her, threatened her, isolated her, kept her family from her. They'd done all that – done all that could be done to break her spirit and her will to resist – but … Aung San Suu Kyi didn't scare worth a damn."
Speaking last, Suu Kyi said the honor made for "one of the most moving days of my life."
"This is a moment for which I have been waiting for many years," she said. "It's worth the years of waiting."
Suu Kyi also gave special mention to the late-Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who died in 2008 after almost 28 years in the House. A prominent voice for human rights, Lantos led a 2005 march in front of the Burmese embassy in Washington to protest Suu Kyi's confinement and sponsored a 2008 law that tightened Burmese sanctions.
"When the generals run out of cash,” Lantos had said, “change will come to Burma.”
Said Suu Kyi: "I'm sorry I've arrived too late to be able to meet him."
After receiving the Gold Medal Wednesday, Suu Kyi met with President Obama at the White House. The details of that conversation were not immediately available.