President Biden on Thursday awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to 17 people in a wide variety of endeavors, including gymnast Simone Biles, Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington and, posthumously, inventor Steve Jobs and former senator John McCain.
“This,” Biden said at the conclusion of the event, “is America.”
Biden, a president who loves ceremonies — often relishing the moments when, as vice president, he swore in new U.S. senators — was in his element for the duration of the event. He smiled at the introduction of each guest, offering salutes and handshakes, kisses and hugs.
The honorees were a study in contrasts, a group that included Biles, 25, the most decorated U.S. gymnast in history, who has advocated for sexual assault victims, as well as former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), 90, the sharp-tongued politician and governor’s son who served 18 years in the Senate.
Of Biles, Biden joked, “Today, she adds to her medal count of 32.”
Other honorees included Sister Simone Campbell, former director of Network, a Catholic social justice organization, who was instrumental in getting the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010. Biden once joined her “Nuns on the Bus” tour.
“Sister Simone Campbell is a gift from God,” Biden said Thursday, taking the occasion to recall his meeting with Pope Benedict, who asked Biden for some advice. “It’d be presumptuous of me to give you advice, Your Holiness,” Biden recalled saying.
When the pope pressed further, Biden said he offered “one piece of advice … I’d go easy on the nuns. They’re more popular than you are.’” He joked, “The fact that six weeks later he retired, I don’t know if that had anything to do with it.”
The president also recognized Washington, an actor, director and producer who has served as national spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for more than 25 years. Biden said Washington was unable to attend the event and would receive his award at a later date; a White House official later said Washington’s absence was due to a “covid result.”
“Denzel Washington, one of our greatest actors in American history. Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Tony Awards, wide acclaim and admiration from audiences and peers around the world,” Biden said.
Biden also praised Megan Rapinoe, a member of the U.S. women’s national soccer team since 2006 who has won one Olympic gold medal and two World Cup championships. She is also captain of OL Reign, a Seattle-based pro team in the National Women’s Soccer League, and became the first soccer player to be granted the award.
In addition to her success on the soccer field, Rapinoe has played a prominent role in pushing for equal pay for the women’s national team and has spoken out on social justice and LGBTQ issues.
“Megan is a champion for the essential American truth that everyone — everyone — is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect,” Biden said.
During his four years in office, President Donald Trump honored 24 people, a list populated by practitioners of his favorite sport, golf — Tiger Woods, Gary Player and Annika Sorenstam — and some of his fiercest political allies, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
Biden himself was a recipient of the award, as President Barack Obama surprised him with a medal in the final days of their administration. It was one of Biden’s best days as vice president, he has recalled fondly, when Obama referred to his eight-year partner as “the best vice president America’s ever had” and a “lion of American history.”
From foster-care challenges to gun violence, the recipients have witnessed up close some of the darkest elements of the American experience but have triumphed over that darkness, Biden said. Giffords, for example, co-founded a nonprofit focused on preventing gun violence after she was shot and gravely wounded at a constituent event in Tucson in January 2011. She is married to Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), a former astronaut, who is up for reelection this year.
Biden also used the occasion to showcase his embrace of bipartisanship and to nod to a Senate where he served for decades. “One of the most decent, stand-up, genuine guys I’ve ever served with — and I served with a lot of senators — is this guy,” Biden said, referring to Simpson.
“He’s a great hugger,” Simpson deadpanned to the room as Biden placed the award around his neck. The two then hugged.
Biden also served in the Senate with McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and decorated Vietnam War veteran who died in 2018 of brain cancer. McCain’s widow, Cindy, endorsed Biden in 2020 as the Democrat reversed the party’s fortunes in Arizona, winning the state. Cindy McCain is now the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture.
Biden grew most emotional when talking about McCain, his longtime friend. They shared much, Biden recounted, but there were two topics they did not discuss: McCain’s imprisonment in Vietnam, and Biden’s loss of his wife and daughter.
“They were significantly different,” Biden said. “But somehow we seem to sort of understand one another.”
He recalled trips they took and political battles they waged.
“I admit to my Democratic friends, I’m the guy that encouraged John to go home and run for office for real,” he said. “Because I knew what incredible courage, intellect and conscience he had. We used to argue like hell on the Senate floor, but then we go down to have lunch together afterwards.”
Cindy McCain, in an interview Thursday with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, said the honor is particularly meaningful given that her late husband was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 5½ years.
“The fact that it’s the Presidential Medal of Freedom means more to us, I think, than most people,” McCain said. “John was denied his freedom for so long.”
The honorees also included Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father who has been an advocate for the rule of law and religious freedom while serving on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; and Gen. Wilma Vaught, one of the most decorated women in the history of the U.S. military. Khan spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Biden honored Fred Gray, one of the first Black members of the Alabama legislature since Reconstruction and an attorney who represented civil rights activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Other medal recipients include Raúl Yzaguirre, a civil rights advocate who served as chief executive and president of National Council of La Raza for 30 years, and Diane Nash, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Biden praised Gray’s contribution to helping dismantle unjust laws. “Fred’s legal brilliance of strategy desegregated schools and secured the right to vote,” the president said.
Other recipients included Juliet García, the former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville and the first Mexican American woman to serve as a college president; Father Alexander Karloutsos, the former vicar general of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; and Sandra Lindsay, a New York critical-care nurse who served on the front lines of the pandemic response.