Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro, Michael Jordan and Diana Ross were among the 21 actors, musicians, sportspeople, scientists and others to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday, as Barack Obama doled out the nation’s highest civilian honour for the last time before he leaves the White House.
Mr Obama has awarded some 114 Medals of Freedom in total, more than any previous President. Speaking at the White House ceremony, he said the awards were reserved for those Americans “who have lifted out spirits, strengthened our union, pushed us towards progress.”
He went on, “I always love doing this event. But 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,” Obama said.
The actors in the group included Mr De Niro, Robert Redford and Tom Hanks, whom Mr Obama praised for his ability to make it seem “normal to have a volleyball as your best friend” in the desert island drama Cast Away.
But the Space Jam remark was a reference to Michael Jordan, the legendary basketball star, who received the award alongside fellow NBA veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the league’s all-time top scorer. Mr Abdul-Jabbar is more than seven feet tall, which made putting the medal around his neck a challenge even for Mr Obama, who is 6 foot 1.
Sports broadcaster Vin Scully was also honoured, weeks after retiring as the in-house announcer for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, a job he held for 67 seasons. The other recipients included TV host and comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who almost didn’t make it into the White House to receive her medal after she forgot to bring her ID; Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, who were recognised for the work of their foundation in battling disease and ill-health around the globe; and the celebrated architect Frank Gehry.
At least two of the awards could be construed as snubs to President-elect Donald Trump. Producer Lorne Michaels presides over Saturday Night Live, a show Mr Trump has criticised as “boring and unfunny” after its comic attacks on his presidential candidacy and transition. Mr De Niro, meanwhile, spoke before the election of wanting to “punch” Mr Trump “in the face”.
Mr Obama handed out more Medals of Freedom on Tuesday than at any other such ceremony during his presidency. As well as awarding more of the medals than any other president, he has also awarded a higher percentage of those medals to non-white and female recipients than any of his predecessors.
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