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Politics & Government

Obama Presents 21 Medals Of Freedom In White House Ceremony

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

President Obama presented artists, athletes and computer scientists with medals in a White House ceremony this afternoon. They were among the 21 people who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It's the nation's highest civilian award. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: One of this year's honorees designed software for Apollo astronauts. Another played an astronaut in the movie "Apollo 13." A mathematician shared the stage with movie stars in the White House East Room as President Obama saluted winners including Robert De Niro, Cicely Tyson, Ellen DeGeneres and Tom Hanks, who's known for so many iconic movie roles, including Forrest Gump.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FORREST GUMP")

TOM HANKS: (As Forrest Gump) My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get.

HORSLEY: That's true of the Medal of Freedom ceremony itself. It's a Whitman's Sampler of high achievers - some world famous, like Bill and Melinda Gates, others a tasty surprise, like computer scientist Margaret Hamilton. Obama says the medals recognize innovators and artists, public servants and rabble-rousers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, we celebrate extraordinary Americans who have lifted our spirits, strengthened our union, pushed us towards progress.

HORSLEY: Obama says this year's class of medal winners is particularly impressive, including physicist Richard Garwin, college president Eduardo Padron and broadcaster Vin Scully, who just retired after 67 years as the voice of baseball's Dodgers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIN SCULLY: High fly ball into right field. She is gone.

(CHEERING)

HORSLEY: The president and first basketball fan awarded medals to two giants of that game - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won five championships with the LA Lakers, and Michael Jordan, who won six for Obama's hometown Chicago Bulls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: There is a reason you call somebody Michael Jordan of.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Michael Jordan of neurosurgery or the Michael Jordan of rabbis or...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: ...The Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: And they know what you're talking about.

HORSLEY: Obama also presented medals to architect Frank Gehry, artist and designer Maya Lin and musician Diana Ross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH")

DIANA ROSS: (Singing) Ain't no mountain high enough. Nothing can keep me, keep me from you.

HORSLEY: This was Obama's last Medal of Freedom ceremony, and he seemed to savor it. The very last award he announced went to a musician who provided the anthem for so many Obama campaign rallies over the last eight years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAND OF HOPE AND DREAMS")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Well, big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams. Meet me in a land of hope and dreams.

HORSLEY: Obama says he hesitated to give Bruce Springsteen a medal named for freedom because he wants him to remain a prisoner of rock 'n' roll. I'm the president, Obama said. He's the boss. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.