Obama awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to 21

Compiled by Lisa Neff, Staff writer

President Barack Obama on Nov. 22 awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — for his final time. Twenty-one Americans, both living and dead, received recognition.

“Today, we celebrate extraordinary Americans who have lifted our spirits, strengthened our union, pushed us toward progress,” Obama said.

“I always love doing this event, but this is a particularly impressive class. We’ve got innovators and artists. Public servants, rabble-rousers, athletes, renowned character actors — like the guy from Space Jam. We pay tribute to those distinguished individuals with our nation’s highest civilian honor — the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

Obama presented the medal to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elouise Cobell (posthumous), Ellen DeGeneres, Robert De Niro, Richard Garwin, Bill and Melinda Gates, Frank Gehry, Margaret H. Hamilton, Tom Hanks, Grace Hopper (posthumous), Michael Jordan, Maya Lin, Lorne Michaels, Newt Minow, Eduardo Padrón, Robert Redford, Diana Ross, Vin Scully, Bruce Springsteen and Cicely Tyson.

The celebration took place in the East Room at the White House.

Some of the president’s remarks about the recipients at the emotional ceremony (for the full transcript, go online to www.wisconsingazette.com):

When an undergraduate from rural Appalachia first set foot on the National Mall many years ago, she was trying to figure out a way to show that “war is not just a victory or a loss,” but “about individual lives.” She considered how the landscape might shape that message, rather than the other way around. The project that Maya Lin designed for her college class earned her a B+ — and a permanent place in American history. …The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has changed the way we think about monuments, but also about how we think about sacrifice, and patriotism and ourselves.”

Three minutes before Armstrong and Aldrin touched down on the moon, Apollo 11’s lunar lander alarms triggered — red and yellow lights across the board. Our astronauts didn’t have much time. But thankfully, they had Margaret Hamilton. A young MIT scientist — and a working mom in the ’60s — Margaret led the team that created the onboard flight software that allowed the Eagle to land safely.

If Wright is flight and Edison is light, then Hopper is code. Born in 1906, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper followed her mother into mathematics, earned her Ph.D. from Yale and set out on a long and storied career. At age 37, and a full 15 pounds below military guidelines, the gutsy and colorful Grace joined the Navy and was sent to work on one of the first computers, Harvard’s “Mark One.” She saw beyond the boundaries of the possible….

In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only succeeded as an actor, she has shaped the whole course history. Cicely was never the likeliest of Hollywood stars. … But once she got her education and broke into the business, Cicely made a conscious decision not just to say lines, but to speak out. … Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped us see the dignity of every single beautiful member of the American family. And she’s just gorgeous.

In 1973, a critic wrote of Robert De Niro, “This kid doesn’t just act — he takes off into the vapors.” And it was true, his characters are iconic. … Robert combines dramatic precision and, it turns out, comedic timing with his signature eye for detail.

Ellen DeGeneres has a way of making you laugh about something rather than at someone. … 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. Just how important it was not just to the LGBT community, but for all of us to see somebody so full of kindness and light, somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbor or our colleague or our sister, challenge our own assumptions, remind us that we have more in common than we realize, push our country in the direction of justice.

What an incredible burden that was to bear. To risk your career like that. People don’t do that very often. And then to have the hopes of millions on your shoulders.

When Elouise Cobell first filed a lawsuit to recover lands and money for her people, she didn’t set out to be a hero. She said, “I just wanted … to give justice to people that didn’t have it.” And her lifelong quest to address the mismanagement of American Indian lands, resources and trust funds wasn’t about special treatment, but the equal treatment at the heart of the American promise. She fought for almost 15 years — across three Presidents, seven trials, 10 appearances before a federal appeals court.

Now, every journalist in the room, every media critic knows the phrase Newt Minow coined: the “vast wasteland.” But the two words Newt prefers we remember from his speech to the nation’s broadcasters are these: “public interest.” That’s been the heartbeat of his 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.

Presidential Medal of Freedom
Diana Ross receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

Here’s how great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was: 1967, he had spent a year dominating college basketball, then the NCAA bans the dunk. They’d didn’t say it was about Kareem, but it was about Kareem. When a sport changes its rules to make it harder just for you, you are really good.

Along with her honey voice, her soulful sensibility, Diana Ross exuded glamour and grace that filled stages that helped to shape the sound of Motown. On top of becoming one of the most successful recording artists of all time, raised five kids — somehow found time to earn an Oscar nomination for acting. Today, from the hip-hop that samples her, to the young singers who’ve been inspired by her, to the audiences that still cannot get enough of her — Diana Ross’s influence is inescapable as ever.

He was sprung from a cage out on Highway 9. A quiet kid from Jersey, just trying to make sense of the temples of dreams and mystery that dotted his hometown — pool halls, bars, girls and cars, altars and assembly lines. And for decades, Bruce Springsteen has brought us all along on a journey consumed with the bargains between ambition and injustice, and pleasure and pain; the simple glories and scattered heartbreak of everyday life in America. … I am the president. But he is The Boss.