At the White House, Prizes for 14 Champs
Medal of Freedom Ceremony Shows Ali as Fast as Ever
Aretha Franklin was teary-eyed, Carol Burnett was teasing, Alan Greenspan was reliably taciturn, and "The Greatest of All Time" stole the show when President Bush bestowed the Medal of Freedom on them and 10 others in a White House ceremony yesterday.
Bush, who appeared almost playful, fastened the heavy medal around Muhammad Ali's neck and whispered something in the heavyweight champion's ear. Then, as if to say "bring it on," the president put up his dukes in a mock challenge. Ali, 63, who has Parkinson's disease and moves slowly, looked the president in the eye -- and, finger to head, did the "crazy" twirl for a couple of seconds.
The room of about 200, including Cabinet secretaries, tittered with laughter. Ali, who was then escorted back to his chair, made the twirl again while sitting down. And the president looked visibly taken aback, laughing nervously.
Was Ali making a political statement? In his remarks about the fighter, Bush mentioned the Olympic gold medal, the grit, "the Ali shuffle, the lightning jabs . . . the sheer guts and determination he brought to every fight." He did not mention Ali's very public opposition to the Vietnam War, which led the prizefighter to lose his boxing license for three years when he refused to serve in the Army.
Or was the boxing legend living up to another trait the president noted, his penchant for psyching out the challenger?