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Fed: Howard beams as Bush anoints "man of steel"

By Kate Hannon, National Political Editor
14 Jan 2009 3:50 PM

CANBERRA, Jan 14 AAP - Former prime minister John Howard beamed as outgoing US president George Bush hung the US Medal of Freedom around his neck at a White House ceremony on Wednesday (AEDT).

Mr Bush invoked his famous moniker for Mr Howard - "the Man of Steel" - as he described their friendship and his admiration for the Australian leader's courage in supporting the war on terrorism.

He told the Washington DC audience of Mr Howard's lament more than 20 years ago on his chances of reviving his political career after losing the Liberal leadership as "Lazarus with a triple bypass".

"The man has got an unusual way of speaking," Mr Bush joked.

Mr Howard and fellow member of the coalition of the willing, former British prime minister Tony Blair, and Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, each received the medal, the highest civilian honour in the US.

Later, Mr Howard said the presentation was a compliment to Australia and to the strength of its relationship with the US.

"I certainly appreciated it, and I felt honoured and I felt touched," Mr Howard told reporters.

"There were some very kind things said about me. But I do, nonetheless, put it in the broader context of it being a compliment to my country."

Mr Bush described Mr Howard as plain-spoken and unpretentious and possessing a character in which "... we see that fine Australian spirit of 'standing by your mates'."

The former prime minister, who was in Washington on an official visit during the September 11 attacks, had been brave in his defence of freedom and remained true to his convictions.

"In these seven years, both our countries have lost innocent civilians and suffered casualties on the field of battle," Mr Bush said.

"He's a man of honesty and moral clarity. He can make a decision, he can defend it, and he stands his ground. That's why I called him a Man of Steel."

Mr Howard told reporters he wished incoming president Barack Obama well and was touched by the breadth of support for him.

"There is no doubt it is an historic moment for the United States to have for the first time a president who is an African-American and it must be a wonderful thing if you are part of that section of this country to feel at long last one of your own has been chosen for the highest office," Mr Howard said.

"People want him to succeed; I want him to succeed."