The 21 men and women who stood awaiting the nation’s highest civilian honor Tuesday in the White House East Room represented Barack Obama’s particular vision of the United States: one where pioneering scientists, groundbreaking performers, crusading activists and unconventional artists chart America’s destiny.
President Obama has not stinted on handing out the Presidential Medal of Freedom during his time in office: He has bestowed it on at least 114 individuals, more than any of his predecessors. Nearly half of the latest honorees were artists, actors or musicians, including singer Bruce Springsteen, actor Robert Redford and “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels.
But there were also computer engineers and famous architects, as well as what the president called “rabble rousers” and philanthropists.
Striking a nostalgic tone at the end of the ceremony, the president said: “So, just on a personal note, part of the reason why these events are so special to me is because everybody on this stage has touched me in a very powerful, personal way, in ways that they probably couldn’t imagine.”
The honorees reflected many of the ideals that Obama has touted in office. The recipients included people involved in advocacy on climate change as well as on behalf of the LGBT community, Native Americans and Muslims.
Throughout his tenure, Obama has used the honor to recognize pioneers in many fields, particularly when they have broken racial or gender barriers. Rear Adm. Grace Hopper, who invented the first compiler for a computer programming language and was known as “the first lady of software,” was granted the award posthumously. Also recognized was Margaret H. Hamilton, who led the team that created the onboard flight software for NASA’s Apollo command and lunar modules.
Obama poked fun at some of the more famous medal recipients, noting that they included “renowned character actors like the guy from ‘Space Jam,’ ” a reference to a 1996 live-action and animated comedy featuring basketball great Michael Jordan.
And he said the world should be grateful that Bill and Melinda Gates, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on causes including fighting the spread of disease in the developing world and developing clean-energy technologies, got married even though Bill Gates’s opening line to his future wife was: “Do you want to go out two weeks from this coming Saturday?”
But the president also spoke of how many of those gathered in the East Room had fought for social justice and greater tolerance in U.S. society, whether it was the late Blackfoot tribal community leader Elouise Cobell, who filed a series of lawsuits to secure greater tribal rights, or comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who came out as lesbian two decades ago.
“And she did pay a price” for coming out, he said, as she beamed behind him.
Obama has come to use these ceremonies both to make a political point and to trot out comedic riffs in front of a friendly audience. There were also unintentional funny moments, notably when the president reached up to put the medal around basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s neck, and when singer Diana Ross had to adjust her enormous hair to receive it.
As he paid homage to Vin Scully, who broadcast Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games for 67 seasons, Obama said, “In fact, I thought about him doing all of these citations, which would have been very cool, but I thought we shouldn’t let him sing for his supper like that.”
Obama praised physicist Richard Garwin for working to reduce “the risk of nuclear war” after helping invent the hydrogen bomb, as well as devising critical components of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, laser printing and the touch screen.
“He even patented a mussel washer for shellfish,” Obama said. “I really want to see that mussel washer.”
Some of the music and film industry’s biggest stars received medals Tuesday, including Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks and Cicely Tyson.
De Niro, Obama joked, has played “a mobster who runs a casino, mobster who needs therapy, a father-in-law who’s scarier than a mobster. Al Capone — a mobster.”
He noted that both Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan had dominated professional basketball. Citing the NCAA’s banning dunking during Abdul-Jabbar’s time in college, Obama said, “When a sport changes its rules to make it harder just for you, you are really good.”
Jordan was so exceptional that people commonly refer to “the Michael Jordan” of a given field, like “the Michael Jordan of neurosurgery, or the Michael Jordan of rabbis, or the Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing — and they know what you’re talking about.”
Obama has often spoken of his appreciation for architects: This time, Frank Gehry and Maya Lin made the group of honorees. Obama also honored Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College for overseeing one of the nation’s “most diverse student bodies” over the past two decades.
Newton Minow made his mark as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President John F. Kennedy, but Obama noted that “as far as I know, he’s the only one of today’s honorees who was present on my first date with Michelle,” because they all worked at the same firm and happened to be seeing Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” at the same movie theater.