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President Biden is presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in a ceremony that provides 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 our history.”
“Today, [Biles] adds to her medal count of 32 – I don’t know if you’re gonna 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.
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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 include Republicans and Democrats alike and feature giants in the labor and civil rights movements, two groups that have been central to his long political career.
Recipients include 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.
Receiving a posthumous award 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 presidential race in 2008 when McCain was the Republican nominee and Biden was then-Sen. Barack Obama’s running mate. McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, endorsed Biden in 2020.
Sister Simone Campbell will receive the honor for her work as an advocate for health care policy, economic justice and immigration reform.
Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., will also be honored. Giffords 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.
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.”