WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden presented the Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest honor – to 17 people Thursday, including actor Denzel Washington, gymnast Simone Biles and former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
The president also presented the award posthumously to Sen. John McCain, Apple founder Steve Jobs and Richard Trumka, who was president of the AFL-CIO.
In a ceremony in the White House East Room, Biden called the recipients “extraordinary Americans.”
“This is America,” he said, pointing to the recipients seated behind him on the stage.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was established under former President John F. Kennedy, is one of the highest awards a civilian can receive.
Biden received the award in January 2017 from former President Barack Obama – one week before the two left office. He was presented the award for his public service as a U.S. senator and vice president.
The award is presented “to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors,” according to the White House.
“President Biden has long said that America can be defined by one word: possibilities,” the White House said in a statement last week announcing the recipients. “These seventeen Americans demonstrate the power of possibilities and embody the soul of the nation – hard work, perseverance, and faith.”
Here are the recipients:
Biles is the most decorated U.S. gymnast in history, winning 32 Olympic and World Championship medals. The gymnast is also an outspoken advocate on issues that are personal to her, including athletes’ mental health, children in foster care and sexual assault victims.
“Everyone stops everything every time she is on camera just to watch,” Biden said.
Washington is an actor, director, and producer who has won two Academy Awards, a Tony Award, two Golden Globes, and the 2016 Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition, he has served as the national spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for over 25 years.
Washington, whom Biden called “one of our greatest actors in American history,” has COVID and was unable to attend the ceremony. Biden said he would present the medal to Washington at a later date, “when he’s able to get here.”
McCain, who died of brain cancer in 2018, served for decades in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate and was the Republican nominee for president in 2008. McCain, who spent more than five years in captivity in Vietnam while serving in the U.S. Navy, was awarded a Purple Heart with one gold star for his service. Biden has called McCain a “dear friend” and “a hero.”
McCain’s widow, Cindy, who accepted the medal on his behalf, wept as Biden reminisced about his long friendship and working relationship with the Arizona Republican, even though they belonged to different parties.
“We agreed on a lot more than we disagreed on,” Biden said. “We both wanted to make things better for the country.”
Jobs, who died in 2011, was the co-founder, chief executive, and chair of Apple Inc., CEO of Pixar and held a leading role at the Walt Disney Company.
Giffords, a former congresswoman from Arizona, is a survivor of gun violence and co-founder of Giffords, a nonprofit organization dedicated to gun violence prevention.
Biden described Giffords as the embodiment of “a significant American trait: Never give up” and said she is proof that Americans “will not grow numb to the epidemic of gun violence in this nation.”
Rapinoe is an Olympic gold medalist and two-time Women’s World Cup champion. She is a prominent advocate for gender pay equality, racial justice, and LGBTQI+ rights.
In addition to her success on the soccer field, Biden said called Rapinoe “a champion for essential American truth” and the belief that “everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Khan, an immigrant from Pakistan, is a Gold Star father and founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Center. His son, who was an Army officer, was killed in Iraq. Khan gained national prominence after speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and became a target of Donald Trump’s wrath.
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Trumka, who died in August 2021, was president of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO for more than a decade, president of the United Mine Workers, and secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Throughout his career, he was an outspoken advocate for social and economic justice.
Gray was one of the first black members of the Alabama Legislature since Reconstruction. He was a prominent attorney who represented Rosa Parks, the NAACP, and Martin Luther King, who called him “the chief counsel for the protest movement.”
Lindsay, a New York critical care nurse, was the first American to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside clinical trials. She served on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic response.
Sister Simone Campbell
Campbell is a member of the Sisters of Social Service and former Executive Director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice organization. She is also a prominent advocate for economic justice, immigration reform, and healthcare policy.
García is the former president of The University of Texas at Brownsville. She was the first Latina woman to serve as a college president.
Karloutsos is the former Vicar General of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. After over 50 years as a priest, providing counsel to several U.S. presidents, he was named by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as a Protopresbyter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
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Nash is a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized some of the most important civil rights campaigns of the 20th century. She worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr., who described her as the “driving spirit in the nonviolent assault on segregation at lunch counters.”
Her activism “echoes a call of freedom around the world today,” Biden said.
Simpson served as a U.S. senator from Wyoming for 18 years. During his public service, he has been a prominent advocate on issues including campaign finance reform, responsible governance, and marriage equality.
Biden called Simpson “one of the finest men I’ve ever worked with” and said that, even though they didn’t always agree, Simpson “has always believed in the common good and what’s best for the nation.”
Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught is one of the most decorated women in the history of the U.S. military, repeatedly breaking gender barriers as she rose through the ranks. She was one of only seven women generals in the Armed Forces when she retired in 1985.
Yzaguirre is a civil rights advocate who served as CEO and president of National Council of La Raza – now known as UnidosUS – for 30 years. He also served as U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic under Obama.
Contributing: Michael Collins, USA TODAY; Associated Press