US President Obama has handed out his last round of the nation's highest civilian honor. He said this year's recipients had all had a "powerful, personal" effect on him.
Barack Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom for the last time on Tuesday in a ceremony praising 21 artists, athletes and technological trailblazers with the country's highest civilian honor. Among Tuesday's recipients were actor Tom Hanks, basketball stars Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
"Today we honour extraordinary Americans who have lifted our spirits, strengthened our union, pressed us towards progress," President Obama said from the East Room of the White House.
"Everybody on this stage has touched me in a very powerful, personal way, in ways that they probably couldn't imagine," he added.
Bill Gates was honored along with his wife Melinda for their philanthropic work, having given away billions of their personal fortune to a number of causes, particularly fighting world hunger and poverty.
In the field of entertainment, alongside Hanks, Obama honored Robert De Niro, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross and Ellen DeGeneres. The latter, he said, not only for artistic work, but also for her bravery in coming out as lesbian back in 1997, helping to "push our country in the direction of justice."
After placing the medal around the neck of the towering Michael Jordan, Obama quipped that "there is a reason you call somebody 'the Michael Jordan of…the Michael Jordan of neurosurgery, or the Michael Jordan of rabbis, or the Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing. Everyone knows what you're talking about."
Other honorees included renowned architect Frank Gehry, Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin, Saturday Night Live Producer Lorne Michaels, as well as a posthumous award to Native American advocate Elouise Cobell.
The president said the 2016 recipients were a "particularly impressive class."
The award was established in 1963 to replace an earlier award founded by President Harry Truman to honor civilians who had distinguished themselves aiding the US in times of war. In previous years, Obama has conferred the award on individuals as diverse as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, physicist Stephen Hawking, and author Toni Morrison.
es/bw (AP, dpa)