Obama gives presidential medals to Silicon Valley, Hollywood, sports and rock stars


For the last time before he leaves office, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday, bestowing it on 21 stars of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, sports and rock, who created a glittering assembly even for the White House.

Among the honorees were singers Bruce Springsteen and Diana Ross, actors Tom Hanks and Robert De Niro, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, and basketball greats Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Rounds of applause and laughter rocked the East Room as Obama bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor on the luminaries, two posthumously, in an hourlong ceremony.


Others honored included actress Cicely Tyson, comedian Ellen DeGeneres, actor Robert Redford, architect Frank Gehry, Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin, baseball announcer Vin Scully and “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels.

It’s unlikely President-elect Donald Trump would give the award to Michaels. On Sunday, Trump complained about his portrayal on “SNL” from the night before, tweeting, “It is a totally one-sided, biased show — nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?”

"Saturday Night Live" producer and screenwriter Lorne Michaels is given a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
“Saturday Night Live” producer and screenwriter Lorne Michaels is given a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press )

Springsteen also may find himself on the outs in the Trump administration.

He has lent his star power to several Democratic nominees for the White House, most recently performing at an election eve rally for Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia that drew Obama and the first lady.

Obama conceded the obvious about the suit-clad New Jersey rocker. “I am the president, but he is ‘The Boss,’” he said.

Many of the celebrities had publicly backed Obama or his policies over the years — and he acknowledged the debt even as he hailed their contributions to American life, arts and sciences.


“Everybody on this stage has touched me in a very powerful, personal way,” Obama said.

Before they retired, Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan were among the National Basketball Assn.’s top performers.

Abdul-Jabbar, who remains the league’s all-time leading scorer, led the Los Angeles Lakers to five championships and the Milwaukee Bucks to another.

“MJ” likewise lays claim to six championships, all during the 1990s with the Chicago Bulls. He now is chairman of the Charlotte Hornets.

Gehry, one of the world’s leading “starchitects,” counts as top projects the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Pritzker Music Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

One recipient is an old friend of the Obamas’: Democratic activist and attorney Newt Minow. He was in the Chicago office of the Sidley Austin law firm when Obama and his future wife, then Michelle Robinson, worked there in 1989.


Minow is best known for decrying bad television as a “vast wasteland” after he was appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in 1961, when TV was in its infancy.

Other honorees included two giants of science — mathematician and software pioneer Margaret Hamilton and nuclear physicist Richard Garwin, who helped design the first hydrogen bomb as well as magnetic resource imaging, a critical tool in modern medicine.

The medal was awarded posthumously to Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet tribal leader from Montana who led a class-action lawsuit against the Interior Department that restored tribal homelands to the Blackfeet Nation and other tribes in a settlement worth $3.4 billion.

Another posthumous award was given to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, the so-called “first lady of software” who was at the forefront of computer and programming development from the 1940s to the 1980s.

The constellation of stars made for a high-wattage prequel to another tradition on tap for the president on Wednesday. He is to pardon a pair of turkeys in a Thanksgiving eve ritual, an event he never seemed to relish.


Twitter: @KatherineSkiba


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