By Alister Bull

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday named billionaire Warren Buffett a winner of the 2010 Medal of Freedom, along with former President George H.W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"These outstanding honorees come from a broad range of backgrounds and they've excelled in a broad range of fields, but all of them have lived extraordinary lives that have inspired us," Obama said in a statement.

The president picked a total of 15 people for the 2010 award, the highest U.S. civilian honor, which will be presented at a White House ceremony early next year.

In addition to Bush, other politicians named by Obama were civil rights champion Congressman John Lewis and Merkel, the first woman and first East German to serve as Chancellor of a unified Germany.

The honor to Bush, the 41st U.S. president and a Republican, could be seen as a bipartisan gesture by Democrat Obama.

Writer Maya Angelou, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and murdered aid worker Doctor Tom Little, who was killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in August, were also named, as well as basketball great Bill Russell and baseball Hall of Famer Stan 'The Man' Musial.

Buffett, one of the world's most successful investors who has donated a vast chunk of his fortune to charity, was the only representative from the business world to be named.

Chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway Inc, Buffett unexpectedly announced in 2006 that he would give away the bulk of his fortune, worth about $40 billion, mostly to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Buffett is one of Obama's closest defenders in the business community and the president has sought his counsel dating back to the 2008 presidential campaign.

In a letter published on Wednesday by the New York Times, Buffett praised Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, former President George W. Bush and other government officials for leading efforts to bail out the economy during the financial crisis two years ago.

"My own company, Berkshire Hathaway, might have been the last to fall, but that distinction provided little solace," Buffett, nicknamed the Oracle of Omaha, said.

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.

(Reporting by Alister Bull, editing by Anthony Boadle and Philip Barbara)