President Barack Obama’s time in the White House is coming to an end, but before he says goodbye and welcomes in President-elect Donald Trump, the 55-year-old politician is honouring those whom he believes have helped push America forward and inspired millions around the world one last time.
On Tuesday, POTUS presented 21 actors, musicians, athletes and innovators with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, in the White House’s East Room.
“Everybody on this stage has touched me in a very powerful, very personal way,” Obama said in his opening speech. “These are folks who have helped make me who I am.”
Among the honourees were Ellen DeGeneres, who couldn’t hold back her tears as she accepted her prestigious medal.
“In a career spanning three decades, Ellen DeGeneres has lifted our spirits and brought joy to our lives as a standup comic, actor and television star,” the presenter gushed. “In every role, she reminds us to be kind to one another and to treat people as each as us wants to be treated. At pivotal moments, her courage and candour helped change the hearts and minds of millions of Americans, accelerating our nation’s constant drive toward equality and acceptance for all.”
As her emotions started to become even clearer, DeGeneres looked at Obama, adorably smiling and taking in the iconic moment. “Again and again, Ellen DeGeneres has shown us that a single individual can make the world a more fun, more open, more loving place, so long as we just keep swimming,” the presenter continued.
Bruce Springsteen — “a songwriter, humanitarian and New Jersey’s greatest ambassador” — was also honoured for being “quite simply, the boss.”
“Through stories about ordinary people, from Vietnam veterans to steelworkers, his songs capture the pain and the promise of the American experience,” the presenter explained. “With his legendary E Street band, Bruce Springsteen leaves everything onstage in epic, communal live performances that have rocked audiences for decades. With empathy and honesty, he holds up a mirror to who we are as Americans chasing our dreams and as human beings trying to do the right thing. There’s a place for everyone in Bruce Springsteen’s America.”
In addition to Springsteen, Obama also presented Diana Ross with the honour, for influencing “generations of young artists” and shaping “our nation’s musical landscape” through her “groundbreaking work with The Supremes” and “solo career that has spanned decades.”
“Diana Ross helped create the sound of Motown with her iconic voice,” the presenter exclaimed. “In addition to a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award and countless musical accolades, Diana Ross has distinguished herself as an actor, earning an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award. With over 25 albums, unforgettable hit singles, and live performances that continue to captivate audiences around the world, Diana Ross still reigns supreme.”
While there were plenty of tears, there were also some laughs, especially when Michael Jordan made his way over to the podium to accept his accolade from POTUS.
“Powered by a drive to compete that earned him every major award in basketball, including six NBA championships, five Most Valuable Player awards and two gold medals, Michael Jordan has a name that’s become a synonym for excellence,” the presenter said. “His wagging tongue and high-flying dunks redefine the game, making him a global superstar whose impact transcended basketball and shaped our nation’s broader culture. From the courts in Wilmington, Chapel Hill and Chicago to the owner’s suite he occupies today, his life and example have inspired millions of Americans to strive to be like Mike.”
And it’d be impossible not to throw in a joke while describing Tom Hanks’ achievements.
“Throughout a distinguished film career, Tom Hanks has revealed a character of America as well as his own. Portraying war heroes, an astronaut, a ship captain, a cartoon cowboy, a young man growing up too fast and dozens of others, he’s allowed us to see ourselves not only as we are, but as we aspire to be. Onscreen and off, Tom Hanks has honoured the sacrifices of those who have served our nation, called on us all to think big and to believe, and inspired a new generation of young people to reach for the sky.”
Robert De Niro also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for delivering “some of screen’s most memorable performances” and “cementing his place as one of the most gifted actors of his generation.” Vin Scully, the narrator of the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers for 67 seasons, was awarded for “his love of the game,” while “Saturday Night Live” creator and producer Lorne Michaels was thanked for helping shape “critical elements of our cultural, political and national life” and “challenging us to think.”
Others honoured included philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, six-time NBA NVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, leading architect Frank Gehry, actors Robert Redford and Cicely Tyson, NASA computer scientist Margaret H. Hamilton and Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin.