Obama awards his last Presidential Medals of Freedom to Michael Jordan, Ellen DeGeneres

Ellen DeGeneres has pulled off a star-studded Mannequin Challenge at the White House. The chat show host was among 21 people being awarded the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she embraced the moment through the internet video trend.
US President Barack Obama presents actress and comedian Ellen DeGeneres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Nov 22, 2016.
US President Barack Obama presents actress and comedian Ellen DeGeneres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Nov 22, 2016. PHOTO: AFP
US President Barack Obama awards US former basketball player Michael Jordan the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Nov 22, 2016.
US President Barack Obama awards US former basketball player Michael Jordan the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Nov 22, 2016.PHOTO: EPA
US President Barack Obama presents actress and comedian Ellen DeGeneres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Nov 22, 2016.
US President Barack Obama presents actress and comedian Ellen DeGeneres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Nov 22, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTimes) - President Barack Obama gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honour, to 21 artists, sports figures, scientists and philanthropists on Tuesday (Nov 22) in a bravura performance that had the East Wing, stuffed to capacity, laughing and whooping with appreciation.

"Everyone on this stage has touched me in a powerful personal way," Mr Obama said at the ceremony's end. "These are folks who have helped make me who I am and think about my presidency."

Mr Obama has given more Presidential Medals of Freedom than any previous president, and the surprising announcement last week that he would induct one last class - he held a similar ceremony two months ago - reflected his obvious joy in lauding his personal heroes and the awareness that many of them would probably never receive such an honour from his successor. Many of the awardees have praised Democrats or been sharply critical of President-elect Donald Trump.

Among the honourees were Robert Redford, Bill and Melinda Gates, Tom Hanks and Diana Ross. When he put the medal around the neck of Michael Jordan, Mr Obama, an avid basketball fan, beamed like a 10-year-old.


US President Barack Obama presents actor Tom Hanks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Nov 22, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

"It's useful, when you think about this incredible collection of people, to realise this is what makes us the greatest nation on earth," he said in a not-so-subtle dig at Mr Trump's promise to "make America great again".

"Not because of our differences, but because in our differences we find something in common to share. And what a glorious gift that is."

The president's opening speech was poignant, revealing and at times hilarious. In a tribute to Ellen DeGeneres, for instance, he spoke with emotion about the courage DeGeneres had needed to tell a national audience that she was gay.

"But it's like Ellen says, 'We all want a tortilla chip to support the weight of guacamole'," Mr Obama said, seemingly out of nowhere, as DeGeneres nodded behind him and the audience laughed. "Which really makes no sense to me. But I wanted to break the mood, because I was getting choked up."

He took a dig at Jordan, the basketball star, by calling him "the guy from Space Jam", a 1996 film with Bugs Bunny.

A tall man, Mr Obama had such trouble reaching up to put the award around the towering Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's neck that the basketball great leaned back to help.

Pardons, commutations, Medals of Honor and other presidential gifts usually have a formalised process, with layers of staff review before the final list of grantees is chosen. But the Presidential Medal of Freedom has often been bestowed via a quirky and haphazard review that reflects the personality of the president. And that has been particularly true in this administration.

The recipients paraded up to the podium area on Tuesday after they were announced by a White House aide who managed to mispronounce the names of Redford, Bruce Springsteen and Cicely Tyson. When he spoke, Mr Obama began his list of awardees with the world's richest couple, Mr and Mrs Gates.

"First, we came close to missing out on Bill and Melinda Gates' incredible partnership," he said, deadpan. "Because apparently Bill's opening line was, 'Do you want to go out two weeks from this coming Saturday?'

"I mean, he's good with computers, you know?" he said to laughter. "Fortunately, Melinda believes in second chances, and the world is better for it."


Bill Gates and Melinda Gates during a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Nov 22, 2016. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG 

Mr Gates has donated nearly US$40 billion to charity and, with a similar donation from Mr Warren Buffett, runs by far the world's largest charitable endeavour, which spends hundreds of millions of dollars in India and Africa to save children's lives. The couple have also invested in and shared some of the Obama administration's most important priorities, including its education and climate initiatives.

When he turned to actor Robert De Niro, Mr Obama said 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," he said to growing laughter as De Niro gave his characteristic tough-guy frown behind him.

Mr Obama's tribute to Vin Scully, the legendary play-by-play baseball broadcaster, noted that Scully's career started at the same time as Jackie Robinson's.


Vin Scully, the legendary Los Angeles Dodgers play-by-play man, after being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Nov 22, 2016. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"In fact, I thought about him doing all these citations, which would have been very cool," Mr Obama said. "But I thought we shouldn't make him sing for his supper like that."

"Up next ..." Mr Obama said, mimicking Scully.

In the case of Jordan, Mr Obama overcame some testy exchanges. In 2014, Jordan criticised the president's golf game and called him a "hack" on the green. Mr Obama responded that Jordan, a golfer himself, should focus his attention on the perennially struggling Charlotte Hornets, which he co-owns.

Then there was the incident involving a basketball poster that Jordan signed "To Barrack", misspelling the president's name.

But Mr Obama was in Chicago when Jordan was making magic on a basketball court there, and the president has never forgotten it.

"There's a reason you call somebody 'the Michael Jordan of'," he said. "The Michael Jordan of neurosurgery, or the Michael Jordan of rabbis, or the Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing. They know what you're talking about."

Springsteen has been a frequent presence in the Obama White House, hosting fundraisers and even travelling on Air Force One during Mr Obama's re-election campaign in 2012, wowing star-struck staff.

Lorne Michaels, creator and longtime producer of Saturday Night Live, was also a recipient, an honour he would be unlikely to get in a Trump administration. On Sunday, Mr Trump said on Twitter that he had watched Saturday Night Live the night before and wrote: "It is a totally one-sided, biased show - nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?"


Lorne Michaels, producer and screenwriter, smiles during a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Nov 22, 2016. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG 

Hanks and his wife are large donors to Mr Obama and other Democrats, and he took part in a dinner discussion in February about the future of Mr Obama's foundation and library. And Abdul-Jabbar spoke at the Democratic National Convention, when he slammed Mr Trump for his proposals to bar Muslim immigrants and introduced himself as Michael Jordan, "because I know that Donald Trump couldn't tell the difference".