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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama awarded America's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on Tuesday to an eclectic group ranging from a Republican predecessor to artists and civil rights figures.
George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was not present for the White House ceremony, were the senior political figures on the list of 15 recipients.
Investor Warren Buffett was the one business leader in the group. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, poet Maya Angelou, and painter, sculptor and printmaker Jasper Johns represented culture and the arts.
A posthumous award went to Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist killed by the Taliban last August while doing humanitarian work in Afghanistan.
Obama, accompanied at the ceremony by his wife Michelle, called the recipients "some of the most extraordinary people in America and around the world," saying they "reveal the best of who we are and of who we aspire to be."
The Medal of Freedom is given to people deemed to have made particularly significant contributions to U.S. security, peace generally, or in cultural or other significant areas.
The honor to Bush, during whose administration the Berlin Wall came down and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was repulsed, could be seen as a bipartisan gesture by Democrat Obama.
Obama praised Bush, a frail-looking 86 who needed assistance walking at the ceremony, for "his humility and decency" and a career in public service ranging from Navy pilot in World War Two through diplomacy and the presidency.
"When democratic revolution swept across Eastern Europe it was the steady, diplomatic hand of President Bush that made possible an achievement once thought impossible, ending the Cold War without firing a shot," Obama said.
Obama described billionaire Buffett "not only as one of the world's richest men but also one of the most admired and respected" who had "demonstrated that integrity isn't just a good trait, it is good for business."
Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc, unexpectedly announced in 2006 that he would give away the bulk of his fortune. He has been one of Obama's strongest defenders in the business community.
Obama said Merkel broke barriers in "becoming the first East German and the first woman to become chancellor of Germany," and praised her as "a trusted global partner and a friend" who leads one of America's closest allies.
Civil rights leaders Congressman John Lewis and Sylvia Mendez were also among those honored, and sports figures basketball great Bill Russell and baseball Hall of Fame member Stan 'The Man' Musial made the list as well.
In addition, the medal went to: - John H. Adams, Natural Resources Defense Council co-founder. - Gerda Weissmann Klein, Jewish Holocaust survivor and author. - Jean Kennedy Smith, founder of VSA, which promotes artistic talents of children, youth and adults with disabilities. - John J. Sweeney, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO.
Reporting by Jerry Norton; Editing by Greg McCune