WASHINGTON — President Obama on Monday bestowed America’s highest civilian honor on trailblazers in the arts, sports and politics, along with a couple of entertainers who are among his personal favorites.

The 18 notables who gathered in the White House East Room to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom left even the president in awe. Obama said the ceremony is one of his favorite events because it celebrates “people who have made America stronger and wiser and more humane and more beautiful.”

He revealed the first record he ever bought was by honoree Stevie Wonder and confessed a crush on Meryl Streep, gushing about her ability to promote empathy on and off the screen through charitable works.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is reserved for individuals who have made “meritorious contributions” to U.S. security, world peace or cultural endeavors. Obama said he took great pleasure in being able to present the award to Ethel Kennedy, since it was her brother-in-law the former president who expanded and elevated the honor more than a half century ago.

Others receiving the award included NBC journalist Tom Brokaw, author Isabel Allende, Native American activist Suzan Harjo, actress Marlo Thomas, economist Robert Solow, former Rep. Abner Mikva of Illinois, physicist Mildred Dresselhaus and golfer Charlie Sifford.

The loudest applause came when Obama gave posthumous medals to family members of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were slain in 1964 as they participated in a historic voter registration drive in Mississippi.

Other posthumous awards were for choreographer Alvin Ailey and Reps. Patsy Mink of Hawaii and Edward Roybal of California, founder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

There also was a sustained cheer for Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell, who is retiring at the end of this year after serving the longest tenure in congressional history.