WASHINGTON -- Muhammad Ali, his hands shaking and eyes
reflecting the White House chandeliers, accepted the nation's
highest civilian award from President Bush on Wednesday.
Bush called him "the Greatest of All Time" and "a man of
peace," and tied the Presidential Medal of Freedom around the
former heavyweight champion's neck.
It was Ali's first public appearance in months, six days after
undergoing back surgery in Atlanta. Wobbly from the effects of
Parkinson's disease, the 63-year-old fighter at times had to
applaud with his left hand clenched in a fist, and now and then
appeared to have trouble sitting up in his seat.
But when it came time to accept his medal, Ali stood proudly in
his black suit and red, yellow and black tie, embraced the
president and whispered in his ear. The president pretended to take
a jab at Ali. The champ responded by pointing to his own head and
moving his finger in a circle around his ear. The crowd laughed.
When he sat down, Ali made the same gesture again.
Ali was one of 14 luminaries to receive the award Wednesday. On
stage, he sat next to actress Carol Burnett. Other winners included
golfer Jack Nicklaus, singer Aretha Franklin and Federal Reserve
Chairman Alan Greenspan.
Calling Ali "a fierce fighter and a man of peace," Bush said
Ali's fighting style would be studied for years but defy imitation.
"The real mystery, I guess, is how he stayed so pretty," Bush
said. Mugging for the crowd, Ali lifted his eyebrows and ran his
hands over his face. The audience of dignitaries, including Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Supreme Court nominee Harriet
Miers and White House adviser Karl Rove, laughed. Bush added: "It
probably had to do with his beautiful soul."
Standing together on the East Room dais, Bush and Ali made a
historically curious pair. During the Vietnam War, their politics
couldn't have been further apart: Bush supported the war, spending
his eligible years in Texas and Alabama with the Air National
Ali, as a conscientious objector, refused to serve and was
sentenced to jail for avoiding the draft, although the Supreme
Court overturned the conviction. Outspoken and proud of his
beliefs, he became a hero to the black nationalist movement. In
1975, he was featured in Parliament's "Chocolate City," a funk
vision of black power that prophesied: "Don't be surprised if Ali
is in the White House ... and Miss Aretha Franklin, the first
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Ky., in 1942, Ali
learned to fight after having his bicycle stolen as boy. He retired
in 1981 with a 56-5 record, 37 knockouts and a gold medal from the
1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, having successfully defended his
title 19 times.
He changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam as a
follower of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. He later converted to
U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, a Republican from Louisville, remembered
listening to Ali's fights as a girl.
"We all huddled around the radio and waited after each round to
hear what he had done and what the commentators thought," she
said. "He was such a great sports hero, but besides that he spent
a lot of time as a U.N. ambassador for peace, trying to raise
awareness of poverty in many of the poorest of poor countries."
On Nov. 19, Ali plans to attend the Louisville opening of the
Muhammad Ali Center, a $75 million museum celebrating his life.
"It certainly is a wonderful if not coincidental time in
Muhammad's life, a time of both receiving and giving," said the
center's director, Michael Fox, who attended the White House
Some bad blood remains from the Vietnam era. Veterans of Foreign
Wars spokesman Joe Davis said two members complained to him that
the anti-war icon was receiving a high award from the president.
But Davis said the VFW itself has moved on.
"He [refused to serve] for religious principles, and he paid
the price. ... And what he did in his later life, he was an
excellent representative of the United States of America."