In his last Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House Tuesday afternoon, President Obama feted one of the most high-profile groups in his eight years in the Oval Office: among them, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, Robert DeNiro, Ellen DeGeneres and Michael Jordan. The nation’s highest civilian honor was bestowed on a 21 individuals from a varying list of categories, from science to sports to entertainment.
“Today we celebrate extraordinary Americans who have lifted our spirits and pushed us to progress,” Obama said in his introduction. “This is particularly impressive class: Innovators and artists, public servants and rabble-rousers, athletes and renowned character actors like the guy from Space Jam,” jokingly referring to Jordan’s 1996 animated basketball comedy.
Obama called out De Niro as a sensitive artist who could blend dramatic precision with comic detail: “His characters are iconic: a Sicilian father turned New York mobster, a mobster who runs a casino, a mobster who needs therapy, a suburban father whose scarier than a mobster, Al Capone.”
Poking fun at Hanks’ movies, from Cast Away to the recent Sully, Obama said that something always happens to him on screen “and yet somehow we can’t resist going where he wants to take us. … He has introduced us to America’s unassuming heroes.” Yet he also paid tribute to how Hanks — whom Obama called “America’s dad” — stood up to cancer with wife Rita Wilson. “The truth is Tom has always saved his best roles for real life. He is a good man.”
The president became a little choked up when recalling how DeGeneres came out as gay on an episode of her TV show Ellen in 1997, a move not only important to the LGBT community but one that could “challenge our own assumptions,” Obama said. “What an incredible burden to bear, to risk your career like that. … And yet today, every day and in every way, Ellen counters what often divides us and inspires us to be better, one joke and one dance at a time.”
Hollywood legend and activist Robert Redford was hailed by Obama for applying “his talent and charm to achieve success,” while he reminded the crowd of how Saturday Night Live‘s Lorne Michaels created a late-night comedy show that was “a mainline not just into our counterculture but our culture. It’s still a challenge to the powerful, even folks like me.”
Obama shared the legacy of basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the staunch support for his Muslim faith and how in 1967 the NCAA banned dunking because of him. “When a sport changes its rules to make it harder just for you, you are really good.” The president’s also a big Chicago Bulls fan so he smiled especially wide when honoring Jordan: “There is a reason you call someone ‘the Michael Jordan’ of something. They know what you’re talking about because Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of greatness.”
After praising singer Diana Ross, whose influence Obama said “is as inescapable as ever,” the departing Commander in Chief wrapped up his remarks with Springsteen, calling the singer-songwriter’s tunes the “anthems of America, the realities of who we are and the reverie of who we want to be.”
“I am the president. He is the Boss. Pushing 70, he is still pushing down four-hour sets. I thought twice about giving him a Medal of Freedom since he calls himself a prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll for years to come.”
Other honorees included actress Cicely Tyson, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, architect Frank Gehry, NASA computer scientist Margaret H. Hamilton and Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin.
“This is America,” Obama said in regards to the new medal recipients. “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.”