WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama hosted his final Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony Tuesday afternoon in the East Room of the White House.
Twenty-one cultural legends received the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“I always love doing this event, but this is a particularly impressive class,” President Obama said. “We’ve got innovators and artists, public servants and rabble-rousers, athletes and renowned character actors — like the guy from ‘Space Jam,'” he joked, drawing laughs from Air Jordan himself.
The president saluted each honoree one-by-one, cracking jokes and singing their praises.
Michael Jordan was honored as a six-time NBA champ and arguably the greatest athlete ever.
“When he was 5, Michael nearly cut off his big toe with an ax,” Obama said. “Air Jordans might never have taken flight! … We may never have seen him switch hands midair against the Lakers, or drop 63 in the Garden, or gut it out in the flu game, or hit ‘The Shot’ three different times: over Georgetown, over Ehlo, over Russell … or lift up the sport globally with the Dream Team. … There’s a reason you call somebody, ‘The Michael Jordan of ____.’ … Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of greatness.”
Tom Hanks was honored as a two-time Oscar winner across “Big” (1988), “Philadelphia” (1993), “Forrest Gump” (1994), “Apollo 13” (1995), “Toy Story” (1995) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).
“He’s been an accidental witness to history, a crusty women’s baseball manager, an everyman who fell in love with Meg Ryan three times, made it seem natural to have a volleyball as your best friend,” Obama said. “From a Philadelphia courtroom to Normandy’s beachheads to the dark side of the moon … Tom has always saved his best roles for real life. He is a good man, the best title you can have.”
Bruce Springsteen was saluted for decades of music with his prolific and beloved E Street Band, cranking out hits from “Born to Run” to “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Dancing in the Dark” to “Glory Days.”
“He was sprung from a cage out on highway nine,” Obama said. “For decades, Bruce Springsteen has brought us all along on a journey consumed with the bargains between ambition and injustice, pleasure and pain, simple glories and scattered heartbreak of everyday life in America. … I am the president, he is The Boss. And pushing 70 [ years old], he’s still laying down four-hour live sets!”
Robert DeNiro was honored as a two-time Oscar winner from such films as “Mean Streets” (1973), “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Raging Bull” (1980) and “Goodfellas” (1990).
“His characters are iconic: A Sicilian father turned New York mobster, a mobster who runs a casino, a mobster who needs therapy, a father-in-law who’s scarier than a mobster, Al Capone, a mobster,” Obama joked. “Robert DeNiro combines dramatic precision and it turns out, comedic timing. While the name DeNiro is synonymous with tough guy, his true gift is the sensitivity he brings to each role.”
Diana Ross was honored as a 12-time Grammy nominee, Oscar nominee and Motown legend.
“The Supremes earned a permanent place in the American soundtrack,” Obama said. “Along with her honey voice and her soulful sensibility, Diana exuded glamour and grace and filled stages that helped to shape the sound of Motown. … Somehow, she found time to earn an Oscar nomination for acting. Today, from the hip-hop that samples her, to the young singers who have been inspired by her, to the audiences that still can’t get enough of her, Diana Ross’ influence is as inescapable as ever.”
Cicely Tyson was a pioneering actress from “Sounder” to “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
“In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only succeeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of Hollywood history,” Obama said. “Cicely made a conscious decision not just to say lines but to speak out. ‘I would not accept roles,’ she said, ‘Unless they projected us, especially women, in a realistic light and dealt with us as human beings.'”
Ellen DeGeneres was saluted for her hilarious comedy and her courage in the gay rights movement.
“It’s easy to forget now — when marriage is equal under the law — how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago,” Obama said. “How important it was, not just for the LGBT community, but for all of us to see somebody so full of kindness and light … challenge our own assumptions and remind us that we have more in common than we realize.”
Lorne Michaels was honored for creating sketch comedy gold on TV’s “Saturday Night Live.”
“He’s created a world where a band of no-names become comedy’s biggest stars,” Obama said. “Where our friends The Coneheads, cheerleaders, Land Sharks, basement deadbeats, motivational speakers and an unfrozen cave man lawyer show up, and Tom Hanks is on Black Jeopardy.”
Robert Redford was saluted for iconic roles in “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid” (1969), “All the President’s Men” (1976) and “The Natural” (1984), as well as directing “Ordinary People” (1980).
“When ‘The Candidate’ wins his race in the iconic 1972 film … he famously asks his campaign manager, ‘What do we do now?'” Obama said, calling it the most accurate campaign movie ever. “He created a platform for independent filmmakers with the Sundance Institute. He has supported our national parks as one of the foremost conservationists of our generation. He’s given his unmatched charisma to unforgettable characters like Roy Hobbs, Nathan Muir and of course, The Sundance Kid.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was saluted as a six-time NBA champion, 19-time All-Star and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. But he was not only a dominant hoopster; he was also a social change agent.
“The NCAA bans the dunk! When a sport changes its rules to make it harder just for you, you are really good,” Obama said. “Kareem is more than just a pair of goggles and the sky hook. He stood up for his Muslim faith when it wasn’t easy or popular. … Physically, intellectually, spiritually, Kareem is one of a kind, an American who illuminates our most basic freedoms and our highest aspirations.”
Vin Scully was honored as arguably the most important sportscaster in baseball history for his decades of broadcasting at Los Angeles Dodgers games. Fun fact: Scully got his start at WTOP.
“The game of baseball has a handful of signature sounds: The crack of the bat, the crowd singing, the seventh-inning stretch, and the voice of Vin Scully,” Obama said. “Most fans listen to broadcasts when you can’t be at the ballpark, but generations of Dodgers fans brought their radios into the stands, because you didn’t want to miss one of Vin’s stories. … Since Jackie Robinson started at second base … he narrated the improbable years, the impossible heroics, and turned contests into conversations.”
Bill and Melinda Gates were honored for decades of philanthropy with the Gates Foundation, not to mention Gates’ technological innovations turning Microsoft into the chief rival of Steve Jobs’ Apple.
“We came close to missing out on a Bill and Melinda Gates partnership … Apparently Bill’s opening line was, ‘Do you want to go out two weeks from this coming Saturday?'” Obama joked. “He’s good with computers, but fortunately, Melinda believes in second chances and the world is better for it.”
Rounding out the 21 recipients were architect Frank Gehry, designer Maya Lin, scientist Margaret Hamilton, physicist Richard Garwin, computer programmer Grace Hopper (posthumous), Native American advocate Elouise Cobell (posthumous), Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón, and lawyer Newt Minow, who introduced a young Barack Obama to Michelle Obama in Chicago.
“Imagine our surprise when we saw Newt, one of our bosses that summer, at the movie theater [watching] ‘Do the Right Thing.’ He’s been vital to my personal interests,” Obama said. “To think about this incredible collection of people, [we] realize this is what makes us the greatest nation on earth. Not because of our differences, but because in our differences we find something common to share.”
Now, after a divisive 2016 presidential campaign, President Obama will hand the baton to President-Elect Donald Trump. Standing in the White House, Tom Hanks offered words of hope for America.
“I grew up at a time when the streets were on fire,” Hanks said. “The ’60s and ’70s were civil rights, Vietnam, a president who kept an enemies list. … We have been through righteously tough, divisive times. And you know what we did? We went on. We moved forward, we cast our votes, we studied the issues, we held everybody accountable. … That’s going to be the American way for the next two, four, six, eight years and on down the pike. We are going to be fine — provided we all do our duty.”
Watch the full Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony here.