WASHINGTON LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley received a rare gift for his 94th birthday Wednesday a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.
"That's a wonderful birthday present, isn't it? Tremendous," the leader of the 11-million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told reporters after receiving the award from President Bush.
He was one of 13 recipients honored at an East Room ceremony. Others included such people as Pope John Paul II (who received his medal recently when Bush visited the Vatican), golfer Arnold Palmer, actress Rita Moreno, cosmetics company founder Estee Lauder and National Geographic Society chairman Gilbert M. Grosvenor.
"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," Bush told those assembled.
"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."
President Hinckley, smiling and walking briskly, joked with Bush as he placed the gold medal 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."
President Hinckley insisted afterward that the award was more for his 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."
When reporters told him that Pope John Paul II had said he was troubled by the Iraqi war when he received his medal, President Hinckley said, "Well, he may be troubled by the war in Iraq, but he cannot discount the bravery of the men and women who at the behest of the commander in chief are there in the cause of freedom."
To show how much the treatment of his church has improved since early persecution, President Hinckley contrasted his high honor Wednesday 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 in April, 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 LDS 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 official written citation with the award said, "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."
The Medal of Freedom was established by President Truman in 1945 to recognize civilians for their service in World War II. It was reinstated by President 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 Wednesday); former South African president Nelson Mandela; civil rights activist Jesse Jackson; and former Czech President Vaclav Havel.