WASHINGTON – “This is particularly impressive class.”
President Obama’s opening line from his final Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony Tuesday turned out to be an understatement of epic proportions.
In total, 21 American icons and innovators packed a small stage in the White House’s East Room to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor.
It was truly a collection of all-time greats – Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert DeNiro, Ellen DeGeneres, Bruce Springsteen, Cicely Tyson, Diana Ross, Tom Hanks, Robert Redford.
Billionaire philanthropist and businessman Bill Gates and wife Melinda were honored, along with architects, software engineers and inventors. (The full list of recipients can be found here.)
Obama balanced moments of praise and compliments with light-hearted jabs at some of the honored guests.
“Athletes, renowned character actors – like the guy from Space Jam,” Obama quipped, referring to Michael Jordan.
During his remarks on Ellen, the president praised the talk show host’s ability to laugh “about something rather than at someone.”
“Except when I danced on her show, she laughed at me,” the president said, referring to his infamous appearance back in 2011.
Obama honored actress Cicely Tyson, complimenting the 91-year-old’s “convictions and grace” in choosing roles that portray “dignity” of Americans on screen.
“And she’s just gorgeous,” he added.
The president shared a light-hearted moment with legendary singer and entertainer Diana Ross as well. The two -and the audience as well- shared a laugh during the president’s attempts to place the medal around her neck.
“This is what makes us the greatest nation on earth,” Obama said in his closing remarks. “Not because of our differences but because in our difference we find something common to share. And what a glorious thing that is. What a great gift that is to America.”
You can watch the full remarks from the ceremony below: