Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Ambassador Philip C. Habib

September 7, 1982

The President. It's a real pleasure for me -- first, won't you be seated, please? -- as my first official act back in Washington to pay tribute to a truly great American.

Ladies and gentlemen, we're here today to honor one of the most dedicated and outstanding individuals that has ever served the United States Government and the American people. Ambassador Philip Habib, our Special Emissary to the Middle East, is a sterling example of the highest standards of the Foreign Service. His career is the story of a lifetime committed to the service of his country and to the resolution of conflicts between nations. And the most recent chapter of that story tells of his efforts to free Lebanon from warfare and armed occupation.

Phil accepted this challenge without hesitation, despite the great personal sacrifices involved both for himself and, I might add, for a brave and patient wife, Mrs. Habib. She has just seen him today for the first time in almost 4 months.

By his skillful diplomacy and tireless activity, Phil has led the efforts of this Government to build a framework in which the leaders of Lebanon could once again protect the right of their people to security and freedom. What he accomplished was the vital first step which made it possible for launching a fresh start in the quest for peace, not only for Lebanon but for Israel and her other Arab neighbors as well.

Phil was not alone. When we honor him we honor all of you in government service -- diplomats, soldiers, analysts, and secretaries -- who've shown once again your commitment, loyalty, and skill. Phil might say that he and the rest of you were only doing your jobs. In fact, he has said that to me about what he's been doing for all these many months. I say that your efforts give vital support to the foreign policy of the United States, and our nation owes you all a debt of gratitude.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award that is given in the United States. What the Olympic Gold Medal is to athletes, what the Congressional Medal of Honor is to the military, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is to the private United States citizen. The names of those who have received this honor are stars in the American sky: Omar Bradley, Carl Sandburg, Helen Keller, Dr. Jonas Salk, Bryce Harlow, just to name several of them.

But I'm going to read the citation.

[At this point, the President read the citation, the text of which follows:]

As the President's Special Emissary, Ambassador Philip C. Habib came out of retirement in 1981 to serve his country in the pursuit of peace and justice in the Middle East. His successful negotiation of the cease-fire in Lebanon and the resolution of the West Beirut crisis stands out as one of the unique feats of diplomacy in modern times. Ambassador Habib's efforts conducted in the most difficult and trying of circumstances over a period of months, not only brought honor and respect to the United States but also won for him world-wide admiration. Of the greatest importance, Philip Habib's mission saved the City of Beirut and thousands of innocent lives and brought us one step closer to a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Now, if you'll just hold that for a moment, we will put the emblem -- since it's symbolic -- can never tell, you know, because after what you've been through, I'm not sure that you could carry that out without -- [laughter] -- --

But, Phil, I just want to say on behalf of all the people of America, thank you for, really, service above and beyond the call. And this goes for your wife, who, I know, sat here with the rest of us watching television sometimes when we wondered if we hadn't ought to be giving you combat pay. [Laughter] But thank you, and God bless you.

Ambassador Habib. Mr. President, Mrs. Reagan, ladies and gentlemen, my friends:

The President has been kind enough to allow me to say a few words after that very distinguished introduction that he gave me.

You honor me very greatly, Mr. President. It's a long way, as I once said, for a boy from Brooklyn via Idaho, out to California and then here. But I wouldn't let this occasion go by without, of course, saying that whatever we accomplished, as you know, was a team effort.

My right-hand man, Morris Draper, sitting right over here -- I used to say half jokingly that Morris did all the work, and I got all the credit. I don't know whether he thought it was half jokingly or not. [Laughter]

But the team was a great one, and there was no one on the team that I and Morris appreciated more than you, Mr. President, for the very simple reason that you told us what to do, and then you gave us the leeway to do it. And George Shultz, Secretary Shultz, backed us completely in those very tense days of the last few weeks. And in the end, we succeeded in doing what you had asked us to do.

It's particularly fitting, considering that my mother and father came from Lebanon, that their son had something to do with bringing a bit of peace to that harried land. There still is a great deal to do. The situation remains extremely tenuous. Each morning I pick up the traffic and read it, wondering if something might go wrong so we have to start all over again. But, so far, we're on track.

I am a chronic optimist, Mr. President, and I'm convinced that it's going to stay on track. And it's going to stay on track partly because of the initiative you most recently took with respect to peace in the Middle East.

There is no more worthy cause. There is no more subject worthy of greater concern on the part of the United States than the cause of peace in the Middle East. Peace and justice for all the nations in the Middle East is what all of us have striven for for many years. And, under your leadership and that of Secretary Shultz, I would hope that it'll be with us very soon.

Other than that, just let me say again, thank you very much for this honor, and thank you on behalf of not only myself, my family, my only grandchild -- who's been quiet all the while -- [laughter] -- but also on behalf of all my colleagues in the Foreign Service who've made me what I am today.

Note: The President spoke at 5:16 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.