President Biden presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in a ceremony that provided a feel-good moment for a White House grappling with polls indicating an overwhelming majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track and low approval ratings for Biden.
The 17 honorees range from 25-year-old Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast in history who has become an advocate for victims of sexual assault, to 91-year-old Fred Gray, who Biden called one of the “most important civil rights lawyers in our history.”
“Today, [Biles] adds to her medal count of 32 — I don’t know if you’re going to find room,” Biden chuckled as he delivered remarks in the East Room at the White House. He praised Biles for her courage “to turn personal pain into a greater purpose, to stand up and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” and noted she’s the youngest person ever to receive the Medal of Freedom.
Biden also acknowledged soccer star Megan Rapinoe’s “remarkable career” and her campaign for equal pay for women.
“Beyond the World Cup titles to Olympic medals, Megan is a champion for an essential American truth: that everyone, everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.”
The recipients of the Medal of Freedom often reflect the sitting president. Former President Donald Trump presented the award to some of his staunchest political allies, like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and radio host Rush Limbaugh, along with athletes from one his favorite sports — golf.
Biden’s honorees Thursday included Republicans and Democrats alike and featured giants in the labor and civil rights movements, two groups that have been central to his long political career.
Recipients included retired Air Force Gen. Wilma Vaught, one of the most decorated women in the history of the U.S. military, Diane Nash, who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and organized major civil rights campaigns, and the late Richard Trumka, former president of the AFL-CIO and United Mine Workers.
“No one did more work for American workers than he did,” Biden said of Trumka.
“His work was fierce, always trying to do the right thing for working people,” Biden said. “In more than 30 years of friendship, he was always honest, fair and tough and trustworthy — the guy you want your corner.”
Also honored was Sister Simone Campbell, a member of the Sisters of Social Service and former Executive Director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice organization.
Biden recalled Sister Campbell’s efforts as part of the “nuns on the bus” tour to “make the moral case that health care is a right in this country, not a privilege, and the obligation to help other people most in need.”
“She’s the embodiment of a covenant of trust, hope and progress of our nation and I’m happy to call her my friend,” Biden said.
Biden joked that he “wasn’t supposed” to tell a particular story in his remarks before proceeding to recall a meeting when he was vice president with Pope Benedict, who asked him for advice.
“I smile and I said, ‘Well, one piece of advice. Go easy on the nuns — they’re more popular than you are,'” he said to laughter from the audience. “The fact that six weeks later, he retired, I don’t know if it had anything to do with it.”
Biden also honored former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., who was the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona state Senate and went on to serve in the U.S. Congress. She was shot in the head and severely wounded in 2011 during a constituent event. Her husband, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, is up for reelection this November.
“Gabby is one of the most courageous people I have ever known,” Biden said.
He called Giffords’ endurance “proof that we can channel the pain and sorrow we see too often in America in a movement that will prevail,” before noting the passage of the recent bipartisan gun safety bill.
Also honored was Sandra Lindsay, a New York critical care nurse who served on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic response and was the first American to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside of clinical trials.
“If there’s any angels in heaven, they’re all nurses, male and female,” Biden said.
He noted Lindsay’s vaccination card and badge are part of a Smithsonian exhibit on the coronavirus pandemic.
Receiving the award posthumously is the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a decorated Vietnam War veteran who died in 2018 of brain cancer. McCain and Biden served alongside each other in the Senate and found themselves on opposite sides of the 2008 presidential race when McCain was the Republican nominee and Biden was then-Sen. Barack Obama’s running mate.
Biden spoke of his personal and professional relationship with McCain, whom he met while serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“John and I traveled the world together,” Biden said. “We became friends. We agreed on a lot more than we disagreed on.”
“The two things we never talked about — never talked about his imprisonment in the Hanoi Hilton, nor the death of my wife and my daughter,” Biden remembered. “Somehow, we seemed to sort of understand one another. It was a long time ago. We both wanted to make things better for the country that we both loved and that never wavered.”
Biden added: “In fact, I admit to my Democratic friends, I’m the guy that encouraged John to go home and run for office, for real, because I knew what incredible courage, intellect and conscience he had.”
Cindy McCain, who endorsed Biden in 2020, accepted the medal on her late husband’s behalf.
Biden also honored Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father and founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Center. Khan garnered national attention speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where he challenged Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and offering to lend the then-GOP candidate his pocket copy of the Constitution.
Also honored Thursday were Julieta García, the first Hispanic woman to serve as a college president, inventor and innovator Steve Jobs (posthumous), Father Alexander Karloutsos, the former Vicar General of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, former Sen. Alan Simpson, and civil rights advocate Raúl Yzaguirre.
Actor and director Denzel Washington, another honoree, was not able to attend in person after he tested positive for COVID-19.
Biden himself received this honor in 2017, when then-President Obama surprised his outgoing vice president with the medal. Obama called Biden a “lion of American history.”