WASHINGTON, D.C. — President George W. Bush presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civil award, to President Gordon B. Hinckley in a White House ceremony on June 23, the Church leader's 94th birthday.
President Hinckley was among 13 recipients of the award.
In presenting the medal to the Church leader, President Bush said: "Millions of Americans reserve a special respect for Gordon B. Hinckley, who still works every day as President of the Mormon Church, and who, on this very day, turns 94 years old. Mr. Hinckley is the grandson of Mormon pioneers and has given devoted service to his church since 1935. He's always shown the heart of a servant, and the gifts of a leader. Through his discipline and faithfulness, he has proven a worthy successor to the many fine leaders before him. His church has given him its highest position of trust, and today this wise and patriotic man receives his country's highest civil honor."
The official written citation with the award states: "As the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and throughout his nearly 70 years in church leadership, Gordon B. Hinckley has inspired millions and has led efforts to improve humanitarian aid, disaster relief and education funding across the globe.
"His tireless efforts to spread the word of God and to promote good will has strengthened his faith, his community and our nation. The United States honors Gordon B. Hinckley for his devoted service to his church and to his fellowman."
President Hinckley, smiling and walking briskly, joked with Bush as the gold medal was around his neck. When President Hinckley was asked later what the two said, he responded, "I was so awestruck that I can't remember what he said."
After the ceremony in the White House East Room, President Hinckley commented to reporters, "That's a wonderful birthday present, isn't it? Tremendous."
He insisted that the award was more for the Church than for him.
"The Church has afforded me all of the opportunities and all of the responsibilities which have led to this occasion," he said.
And because it is the Medal of Freedom, he said, "it really belongs to those men and women who are engaged in the battle for freedom in other parts of the world."
To show how much the treatment of the Church has improved since early persecution, President Hinckley contrasted his high honor June 23 with how Joseph Smith, the first president of the Church, was treated when he visited Martin Van Buren in the White House in 1839.
"They came here to plead the case for our people who had been despoiled and persecuted and driven, and were turned down by President Van Buren who said, 'If I help you, I will lose the state of Missouri,' and rebuffed him. And he went home without anything for which he had come," President Hinckley recounted. "Now to have this invitation from the president of the nation is a very signal and significant honor."
It was President Hinckley's fifth visit to the White House, where he had previously met with Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton. He has also met with the current President Bush twice previously in Utah.
As an additional birthday present, all five of President Hinckley's children flew with him to the ceremony. He said his only regret is that his wife, who died April 6, was unable to have seen it.
"I am just so sorry that she isn't here," he said. "She would have enjoyed it very much. She liked to mingle with people and have a good time wherever she went."
He added that the medal is a sign of a bright future he foresees for the Church. "I see an unbounded future. . . . This work will spread across the earth. When you think of what has happened thus far, you just have to realize that if we keep going it will grow exponentially. And wherever it goes, it will touch for good the lives of people across this whole broad world."
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who is LDS and was among invited guests, called it a "marvelous Mormon moment."
And Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, another guest at the ceremony, added, "He's got it all: 94 years old, on his birthday, a Presidential Medal of Freedom. It doesn't get any better than that."
The Medal of Freedom was established by President Harry S Truman in 1945 to recognize civilians for their service in World War II. It was reinstated by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 to honor distinguished service.
Past winners include former U.S. presidents Carter, Ford and Reagan; current Secretary of State Colin Powell (who attended the ceremony June 23); former South African president Nelson Mandela; and former Czech President Vaclav Havel.