/ 10 November 2005

Bush honours Ali with highest civilian award

Muhammad Ali, his hands shaking and eyes reflecting the White House chandeliers, accepted the nation’s highest civilian award from President George Bush on Wednesday.

Bush called him ”the greatest of all time” and ”a man of peace”, and tied the Presidential Medal of Freedom around the former heavyweight champion’s neck.

It was Ali’s first public appearance in months, six days after undergoing back surgery in Atlanta. Wobbly from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, the 63-year-old former heavyweight boxing champion at times had to applaud with his left hand clenched in a fist, and now and then appeared to have trouble sitting up in his seat.

But when it came time to accept his medal, Ali stood proudly in his black suit and red, yellow and black tie, embraced the president and whispered in his ear. The president pretended to take a jab at Ali. The champ responded by pointing to his own head and moving his finger in a circle around his ear. The crowd laughed.

When he sat down, Ali made the same gesture again.

Ali was one of 14 luminaries to receive the award on Wednesday. On stage, he sat next to actress Carol Burnett. Other winners included golfer Jack Nicklaus, singer Aretha Franklin and Federal Reserve chairperson Alan Greenspan.

Calling Ali ”a fierce fighter and a man of peace”, Bush said Ali’s fighting style would be studied for years but defy imitation.

”The real mystery, I guess, is how he stayed so pretty,” Bush said.

Mugging for the crowd, Ali lifted his eyebrows and ran his hands over his face. The audience of dignitaries, including Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and White House adviser Karl Rove, laughed.

Bush added: ”It probably had to do with his beautiful soul.” — Sapa-AP