President Barack Obama on Tuesday awarded 17 Americans their country’s most prestigious honor. In true American form, there were Presidential Medals of Freedom for baseball legends, Hollywood legends and musical legends.
And then there was a social worker from Maryland who became a true Washington legend, Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. Obama recounted the fight that summoned Mikulski into her career of public service, a battle over a proposed highway that was to cut through her Baltimore neighborhood.
He noted the project appeared all but a done deal “until it ran into a young social worker — and let’s just say you don’t want to be on the wrong side of Barbara Mikulski.
“She stopped that highway,” Obama said, a nodding Mikulski seated just to his left.
She would go on to become “a lioness on Capitol Hill” who advocated for issues such as women’s rights and a slew of domestic programs, he said.
Mikulski, 79, is the longest serving woman in Congress and became the dean of women in the Senate. When she retires next year at the end of her term, she'll have served 30 years in the Senate and another 10 before that in the House.
She chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee from 2012 until 2015, the first woman and Marylander to do so. During that span and throughout her congressional career she has been a vocal advocate for social programs like those run by the Maryland-based National Institutes of Health.
Mikulski earned a reputation among her colleagues, aides and reporters for always speaking candidly.
Spotted in attendance in the White House’s East Room were members of the Maryland congressional delegation, including House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer and Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Mikulski did not speak during the ceremony, but took to the Senate floor last week to speak about the coming award, saying “the honor has always been to be here.”
True to form, she had a memorable line about her start in public service, which began when she organized the “Hell No, We Won’t Go” committee to protest that proposed Baltimore highway:
Other recipients included performers and artists James Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, Stephen Sondheim, as well as Emilio and Gloria Estefan; baseball legends Yogi Berra and Willie Mays; and Bonnie Carroll, who founded an organization that helps those affected by the death of a loved one killed while serving in the U.S. military.
“You know what’s so great about this country? In others, they put you in jail and beat you. In this country, they sent me to city council and I beat the political bosses.”
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report. Related: Mikulski to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom Congressional Hits and Misses: Best of Barbara Mikulski See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.