President Obama Awards His Last Presidential Medals of Freedom

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President Obama gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to 21 artists, sports figures, scientists and philanthropists on Tuesday 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 honor from his successor. Many of the awardees have praised Democrats or been sharply critical of President-elect Donald J. Trump.

Among the honorees 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.

“It’s useful, when you think about this incredible collection of people, to realize 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 Ms. DeGeneres had needed to tell a national audience that she is 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 Ms. 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 Mr. 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 formalized 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 Tuesday after they were announced by a White House aide who managed to mispronounce the names of Mr. Redford, Bruce Springsteen and Cicely Tyson. When he spoke, Mr. Obama began his list of awardees with the world’s richest couple, Bill and Melinda Gates.

“First, we came close to missing out on Bill and Melinda Gates’s 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.”

Mr. Gates has donated nearly $40 billion to charity and, with a similar donation from Warren Buffett, now runs by far the world’s largest charitable endeavor, 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.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Gardiner Harris