Follow @lynnsweetWASHINGTON – In this season of “lasts” in President Barack Obama’s White House, Tuesday marked an extraordinary gathering of 21 people – superstars all– who received Obama’s final batch of Presidential Medals of Freedom.
“We’ve got innovators and artists. Public servants, rabble rousers, athletes, renowned character actors — like the guy from Space Jam,” said Obama, taking an affectionate poke at Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan.
“I am the President, he is the Boss,” said Obama, hanging a medal around the neck of rocker Bruce Springsteen, who closed out Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaign rallies.
Jordan, who owns the Charlotte Hornets was teary; so was Ellen Degeneres when they got their medals. Obama, pretty tall himself, had to stretch to attach the medal to another NBA giant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Follow @lynnsweetObama kidded a former University of Chicago physicist, Dick Garwin, who helped create the hydrogen bomb – and then worked to reduce the nuclear threat – for also getting a patent on a “mussel washer” for shellfish.
Chicago’s Newton Minow, hugged the president — who he met as a young law student — as his wife, Jo, and three adult daughters beamed. Everyone laughed when Obama had to call Robert DeNiro twice to the podium. Tom Hanks turned towards the announcer to give an approving nod when he said, “Reach for the sky,” with relish, Hank’s signature line from “Toy Story.”
First lady Michelle Obama was in an aisle seat in the front row, sitting next to Vice President Joe Biden. The row included senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former AG Eric Holder. Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff Tina Tchen greeted Secretary of State John Kerry with a hug. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, an early 2008 Obama backer, was in the House.
In a few weeks, they will all be gone.
Donald Trump will be the president.
Obama did not say Trump’s name when he rebuked his divisive campaign and his “make America great again” slogan.
Ending “on a personal note,” Obama said, “it’s useful when you think about this incredible collection of people to realize that this is what makes us the greatest nation on Earth. … Not because of our differences, but because, in our difference, we find something common to share. And what a glorious thing that is. What a great gift that is to America.”
THE MICHAEL JORDAN OF GREATNESS
Jordan, said Obama, a basketball fanatic, is “more than just the best player on the two greatest teams of all time — the Dream Team and the Chicago ’96 Bulls. He’s more than a logo, more than just an Internet meme. More than just a charitable donor or a business owner committed to diversity.
“There is a reason you call someone ‘the Michael Jordan of’ -— 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. Because Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of greatness. He is the definition of somebody so good at what they do that everybody recognizes them. That’s pretty rare.”
NEWT MINOW AND THE PUBLIC INTEREST
Minow’s ‘vast wasteland’ line from his 1961 speech about television is famous; Obama of course used it. Obama added, the “public interest” has been “the heartbeat” of Minow’s life’s work, “advocating for residents of public housing, advising a governor and Supreme Court justice, cementing presidential debates as our national institution, leading the FCC.
“…As far as I know, he’s the only one of today’s honorees who was present on my first date with Michelle. Imagine our surprise when we saw Newt, one of our bosses that summer, at the movie theater – “Do the Right Thing.” So he’s been vital to my personal interests.’’
Said Obama about Ellen DeGeneres, “It’s easy to forget now, when we’ve come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law — just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago.”
Obama said the NCAA likely banned the dunk because of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, honored Tuesday for more than hoops: “He stood up for his Muslim faith when it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t popular. … Kareem is one-of-a-kind — an American who illuminates both our most basic freedoms and our highest aspirations.”
ALSO HONORED …
Microsoft’s Bill and Melinda Gates; architects Maya Lin and Frank Gehry; Saturday Night Live founder Lorne Michaels; software engine pioneer Margaret Heafield Hamilton; actor Robert Redford; sports announcer Vin Scully, actress Cicely Tyson; educator Eduardo J. Padrón.