WASHINGTON — After conferring the Presidential Medal of Freedom on 17 people, including the gymnast Simone Biles and a posthumous honor for John McCain, the longtime Republican senator, President Biden said, “That is America.”
However the celebratory event within the East Room of the White House on Thursday said as much in regards to the president because it did in regards to the country represented by the group of men and girls he was honoring.
The event underscored Mr. Biden’s longstanding Catholic faith, his unwavering support for unions, his preference for centrist lawmakers and his belief in diversity. Any president’s selection of whom to honor offers a window into his values and priorities. The event hosted by Mr. Biden was no different.
“Sister Simone Campbell is a present from God,” Mr. Biden said as he told the audience of his decision to present the nation’s highest civilian award to a nun who has spent a long time fighting for social justice and helping the poor. The selection of a longtime ally by Mr. Biden, a practicing Catholic, was a testament to his a long time juggling politics and religion.
Before moving on to the opposite recipients, the president stopped to inform the story of Pope Benedict XVI asking him for advice. After protesting that giving advice to the pope could be presumptuous, Mr. Biden, then the vp, gave in.
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“I’d go easy on the nuns,” he recalled saying. “They’re more popular than you’re.”
Mr. Biden gave one among the medals to Richard Trumka, who led the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and was a strong Democratic activist for years before his death last yr. The choice to honor Mr. Trumka was a mirrored image not only of their personal bonds, but of the role that unions have played in Mr. Biden’s profession.
Since he began running for office, Mr. Biden has fashioned himself as a “working Joe,” someone who understands the needs of working people. Unions have been a few of his most fervent supporters; just the day before, on Wednesday, he flew to Ohio for an event about pension reforms that profit union staff.
“His work was fierce, all the time attempting to do the appropriate thing for working people,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Trumka as he delivered the medal to Mr. Trumka’s son. “In greater than 30 years of friendship, he was all the time honest and fair and hard and trustworthy.”
Campaigning for president in 2020, Mr. Biden sold himself to the nation as essentially the most centrist Democratic option and as someone who could work across the aisle in Congress to achieve compromise. He has struggled to do this since taking office, but Mr. Biden’s selection of honorees on Thursday demonstrated how he still saw himself.
Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, was one among the medal recipients. Mr. Biden called him “one of the crucial decent, stand-up, real guys I ever served with — and I served with loads of senators.”
He also gave a medal to Mr. McCain, the previous senator from Arizona who had long been one among Mr. Biden’s closest friends. Mr. McCain’s wife, Cindy, accepted the award on behalf of Mr. McCain, who passed away in 2018.
“We used to argue like hell on the Senate floor,” Mr. Biden recalled. “Then we’d go down and have lunch together.”
The president recalled being on a visit with Mr. McCain a long time ago and stopping off in Hawaii, where Mr. Biden introduced his fellow senator to Cindy, adding, “He still owes me!”
Because the audience laughed, Ms. McCain appeared to wipe tears from her eyes.
Mr. Biden also picked Ms. Biles, essentially the most decorated American gymnast in history and a Black woman who — at 25 years old — is the youngest person ever to receive the award, Mr. Biden said.
He honored Megan Rapinoe, an Olympian and a Women’s World Cup champion, who has advocated gender pay equality, racial justice and gay rights.
He also singled out several people for the work they did to advertise civil rights, including Diane Nash, a founding father of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and an in depth ally of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Fred Gray, a lawyer for Dr. King and Rosa Parks; and Raúl Yzaguirre, who led the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization.
Taken together, the picks underscored Mr. Biden’s belief in ensuring diverse groups are represented and highlighted the ways by which the civil rights struggles of the past several a long time have molded his political profession.
“Diane Nash shaped a few of an important civil rights efforts in America,” Mr. Biden said. “And yet she is the primary to say the medal is shared with a whole lot of hundreds of patriotic Americans who sacrificed a lot for the reason for liberty and justice for all.”
“And by the way in which,” Mr. Biden said, “she asked me to be sure so as to add that because she didn’t wish to take all of the credit.”
The others who received medals on Thursday were former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was injured during a mass shooting; Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple who died in 2011; the actor Denzel Washington, who the White House said missed the event due to a positive coronavirus test; Sandra Lindsay, a Recent York nurse who was the primary American to receive a Covid-19 vaccine; Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, one of the crucial decorated women within the history of the U.S. military; Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father; the Rev. Alexander Karloutsos, the previous vicar general of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; and Julieta García, the previous president of the University of Texas at Brownsville.