Nearly two-dozen movie stars, musicians, sports icons and tech titans visited the White House Tuesday to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, from President Obama in a star-studded ceremony.
Actors Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks and Robert Redford, rocker Bruce Springsteen, NBA legends Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres were among the 21 public figures awarded the prestigious honor Tuesday, in what was the final Medal of Freedom ceremony of Obama’s presidency.
“Today we celebrate extraordinary Americans who have lifted our spirits, strengthened our union, pushed us towards progress,” Obama said at the beginning of Tuesday’s event at the White House.
“This is a particularly impressive class. We’ve got innovators and artists, public servants, rabble rousers, athletes, renowned character actors, like the guy from Space Jam,” the president joked, referring to Michael Jordan’s role in the 1996 animated film.
Other stars in attendance at Tuesday’s ceremony were Saturday Night Live showrunner Lorne Michaels, renowned architect Frank Gehry, tech titans and philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, singer Diana Ross, Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully and actress Cicely Tyson. Also awarded were physicist Richard Garwin, sculpture artist Maya Lin, attorney Newton Minow, NASA mathematician and computer scientist Margaret H. Hamilton, Miami Dade College president Eduardo Padrón, the late computer science pioneer Grace Hopper and the late Native American activist Elouise Cobell.
Obama briefly introduced each honoree before awarding them their medals. The president called Hanks “America’s dad,” and said that Springsteen had penned the “anthems of our America, the reality of who we are and the reverie of who we want to be.”
He noted that Michael Jordan’s name has become synonymous with greatness and praised DeGeneres for risking her career to come out as gay on an episode of her TV program nearly 20 years ago. The president also lauded De Niro’s “iconic” film characters and said Michaels’s Saturday Night Live remains a “challenge to the powerful, even folks like me.”
“This is America,” Obama said at the conclusion of the hour-long ceremony. “It’s useful when you think about this incredible collection of people that this is what makes us the greatest nation on Earth. Not because of our differences, but because in our difference we find something common to share.”
Before the event, many of the honorees participated in the so-called “mannequin challenge.”
Look what we got everyone to do! I'm in the pink dress laughing with Rita! It’s the #MannequinChallenge, Presidential Medal of Freedom Edition at the @WhiteHouse!! Starring #RobertDeNiro, @RitaWilson, @TheEllenShow, @KareemAbdulJabbar_33, @TomHanks, #BillGates, #MichaelJordan, @FrankGehry, my mama #DianaRoss, and more!
Watch the video of the complete ceremony above.
Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter: @dznussbaum