An Olympic gymnast, a nun and a priest walked into the White House East Room on Thursday joined by 13 other Americans, including a former Republican senator and one of the most decorated women in the history of the US military, to receive the nation’s highest civilian honour — the Presidential Medal of Freedom — from President Joe Biden.
The medal, which is awarded at the discretion of the president “for especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavours,” was established under an executive order signed by President John F Kennedy not long before his assassination in 1963.
Mr Biden noted that the US had celebrated its’ independence just three days ago, and said the country is “always a work in progress in creation,” and a place of “possibilities”.
“We the people do what we can to ensure the idea of America, a cause of freedom shines like the sun to light up the future of the world. That's the soul of our nation. That's who we are as Americans,” said the president, who added that the qualities he spoke of could be seen in the “extraordinary group of Americans” he was recognising with the most prestigious award that can be bestowed upon an American civilian.
The 17 recipients selected by Mr Biden include Simone Biles, the most decorated female gymnast in US history, US women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, US Representative turned gun safety activist Gabrielle Giffords, former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson, actor Denzel Washington, retired Air Force Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, civil rights activist Diane Nash, civil rights attorney Fred Gray, community college executive Julieta Garcia, Greek Orthodox priest Father Alexander Karloutsos, “Nuns on the Bus” campaign founder Sister Simone Campbell, lawyer and civil rights activist Khizr Khan, former National Council of La Raza leader Raúl Yzaguirre, and Sandra Lindsey, the American nurse who was the first to receive a Covid-19 vaccine in late 2020. Mr Washington, the Academy Award-winning actor, did not attend reportedly due to a Covid-19 diagnosis.
Of Ms Biles, Mr Biden said she showed “unmatched power and determination, grace and daring” in her gymnastics competitions. He called her “a trailblazer and a role model” as well, noting that at age 25 she is the youngest-ever recipient of the Medal of Freedom.
“When she stands on the podium, what we see is absolute courage, turning personal pain [into] a greater purpose to stand up and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” he added.
Speaking of Mr Gray, the 91-year-old civil rights attorney, Mr Biden called him “the most important civil rights lawyers in our history” and observed that he was who civil rights pioneers such as the late John Lewis, Rosa Parks and Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr called when they needed “a lawyer for their fight for freedom”.
“Fred's legal brilliance and strategy, desegregated schools and secured the right to vote,” said Mr Biden, who also noted that Mr Gray still practices law at “91 years young”.
“He's still keeping the faith in the best of America,” he said.
Mr Biden also presented three awards posthumously, to Emerson Collective founder Laurenne Powell Jobs on behalf of her late husband, Apple founder Steve Jobs, to Richard Trumka Jr on behalf of his father, the late AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka, and to UN World Food Program Ambassador Cindy McCain, who accepted the medal on behalf of her late husband, Arizona Senator John McCain.
Regarding the late senator, the president recounted the story of how he first met the former Vietnam War POW and future Republican presidential nominee when he was a military aide assigned to liaise with the US Senate.
Turning to Ms McCain, he recalled how the young military officer was staffing him and a group of senators when they stopped in Hawaii while traveling to Asia in the “late 1970s”.
“Cindy, I think you were there on vacation. And you were talking to my wife, Jill, and John kept looking at her and talked about her, so Jill and I did something which was a little presumptuous. We made sure they [were] introduced [to] one another,” he said, drawing laughter and applause after he added: “He [John McCain] still owes me”.
“It was the best thing we ever did for John,” he said.
After hanging the medal around the neck of each recipient as a military aide read their award citation, Mr Biden gestured to the assembled honourees.
“This is America,” he said.
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