WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor to 21 groundbreaking actors, musicians, athletes and innovators who inspired him over the years and “helped make me who I am.”
“Everybody on this stage has touched me in a very powerful, personal way, in ways that they probably couldn’t imagine,” Obama said in concluding an hour-long ceremony Tuesday in the White House East Room.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom recognizes especially meritorious contributions to the national interests of the United States, its security and its culture. Obama called the 2016 group a “particularly impressive class.”
In the film world, Obama honored Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Robert Redford and Cicely Tyson.
Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, two of the greatest basketball players ever, were also among the honorees. Obama noted how Jordan’s name is synonymous with excellence.
“There is a reason you call somebody ‘the Michael Jordan of,’” Obama said. “The Michael Jordan of neurosurgery, or the Michael Jordan of rabbis, or the Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing. Everyone knows what you’re talking about.”
Bruce Springsteen and Diana Ross were recognized for their music. Of “The Boss,” he said Springsteen crafted “anthems of our America, the reality of who we are and the reverie of who we want to be.”
Other honorees included philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, comedian Ellen DeGeneres and broadcaster Vin Scully. Of DeGeneres, Obama said she has a way of making people laugh at something rather than someone, “except when I danced on her show.” He said it’s also easy to forget that she had risked her career nearly 20 years ago when she came out as gay.
“What an incredible burden that was to bear, to risk her career like that. People don’t do that very often, and then to have the hopes of millions on your shoulders,” Obama said.
The diverse group seemed to enjoy themselves at the White House, participating in a mannequin challenge before the ceremony, trying not to move as they were recorded on video.
Obama said the people receiving the medal helped push America forward and inspired millions around the world. The White House said the president and his staff spend time considering a variety of candidates for the award, but ultimately, it’s the president’s decision.
Posthumous honors went to Native American advocate Elouise Cobell and Rear Adm. Grace Hopper.
Others receiving the award included:
— Richard Garwin, an inventor and polymath physicist who made pioneering contributions to the nation’s defense.
— Frank Gehry, one of the world’s leading architects.
— Margaret H. Hamilton, a mathematician and computer scientist.
— Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
— Lorne Michaels, producer of “Saturday Night Live”
— Newton Minow, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman devoted to numerous public and charitable causes.
— Eduardo Padron, president of Miami Dade College.
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