US Presidential Medal of Freedom

Obama gives out his last awards

Unintentional funny moments included President Barack Obama putting the medal on towering basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (above) and on singer Diana Ross (right), who had to adjust her enormous hair.
Unintentional funny moments included President Barack Obama putting the medal on towering basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and on singer Diana Ross, who had to adjust her enormous hair.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Unintentional funny moments included President Barack Obama putting the medal on towering basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (above) and on singer Diana Ross (right), who had to adjust her enormous hair.
Unintentional funny moments included President Barack Obama putting the medal on towering basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and on singer Diana Ross, who had to adjust her enormous hair.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

WASHINGTON • Robert Redford, Tom Hanks, Diana Ross, Michael Jordan, Ellen DeGeneres and Mr Bill Gates and his wife Melinda were among 21 artists, sports figures, scientists and philanthropists given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honour, on Tuesday.

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

He has given more Presidential Medals of Freedom than any 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 heroes and the awareness that many of them would probably never receive such an honour from his successor, President-elect Donald Trump.

The awardees included singer Bruce Springsteen, actor Robert De Niro, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, architect Frank Gehry and artist Maya Lin.

When he put the medal around the neck of former basketball star Jordan, Mr Obama, an avid fan of the sport, beamed like a 10-year-old.

The President's opening speech was poignant and hilarious. In a tribute to comedienne DeGeneres, for instance, he spoke with emotion about the courage she needed to tell a national audience she is gay.

"But it's like Ellen says, 'We all want a tortilla chip that can support the weight of guacamole,'" he said, seemingly out of nowhere, as she nodded behind him and the audience laughed.

"Which really makes no sense to me, but I thought it would brighten the mood because I was getting kind of choked up."

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

He said the world should be grateful that Mr and Mrs Gates, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on causes including fighting the spread of disease in the developing world, got married even though Mr Gates' opening line to his future wife 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."

De Niro, Mr Obama joked, has played "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".

There were also unintentional funny moments, notably when the President, a tall man, had trouble putting the medal around towering basketball legend Kareem AbdulJabbar's neck, and when singer Ross had to adjust her enormous hair to receive it.

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.

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.

Then there was 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."

NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2016, with the headline 'Obama gives out his last awards'. Print Edition | Subscribe