Obama set to bestow Presidential Medal of Freedom, one last time

The White House announced the 21 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday, an honor that often reflects the sitting president's interests.

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/File
Frank Gehry arrives at the 43rd AFI Lifetime Achievement Award Tribute Gala at the Dolby Theatre on Thursday, June 4, 2015, in Los Angeles. Mr. Gehry will be one of the recipients of the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

After eight years, President Obama is ready to award the his final Presidential Medals of Freedom, the White House announced Wednesday, in anticipation of the late-November ceremony – one of his last official acts before President-elect Donald Trump steps into office.

This year, notable names such as philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, talk show host and comedian Ellen DeGeneres, musician Bruce Springsteen, and basketball players Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are just a few of the 21 honorees who will receive the highest civilian honor in the United States on Nov. 22. 

"The Presidential Medal of Freedom is not just our nation's highest civilian honor – it's a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better," Mr. Obama said in a statement.

The first Presidential Medal of Freedom was awarded by President Harry Truman in 1945 to honor exceptional services connected to World War II, and for years, the honor continued to reward achievements in national security or diplomacy.

It was President John Kennedy who, in 1963, expanded the parameters of the award to include not just military accomplishments, but civilian contributions to national security, world peace, or culture.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom can be awarded to nearly anyone, including foreign citizens, whom the sitting president selects.

"As such, recipients tend to reflect the personal and political interests of the President," according to a 2004 Congressional Research Service report on the subject. "The accomplishments of past recipients have been in wide-ranging fields, including public service, journalism, business, sports, and entertainment."

Actors Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, and Robert Redford will also win the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year, in addition to fellow entertainers Diana Ross, whose career included music, film, television, theater, and fashion, and actress Cicely Tyson.

Scientific accomplishments will also be honored. Physicist Richard Garwin earned a Ph.D. at age 21 under famous Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, and has contributed to US defense and intelligence in fields including nuclear weaponry, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and military technology. Computer scientist and systems engineer Margaret Hamilton, who led the team that built the software for NASA's Apollo mission and lunar modules, will also be honored.

Other winners include "Saturday Night Live" producer and screenwriter Lorne Michaels, sportscaster Vin Scully, and Frank Gehry, whose designs, such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, are credited with helping to define contemporary architecture. Eduardo Padrón, the President of Miami Dade College, will also receive the award in honor of his career advocating for affordable education. 

Two awards will be given posthumously this year. One goes to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who was both a United States Naval Reserve lieutenant during World War II and on the cutting edge of computer programming from the 1940s through 1980s. The other goes to Elouise Cobell, a leader of the Blackfeet tribe and advocate for native American rights.

This report includes material from Reuters.

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