Simone Biles and John McCain receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom

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WASHINGTON — After awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 people, including gymnast Simone Biles and a posthumous honor to John McCain, the longtime Republican senator, President Biden said, “This is America.”

But the celebratory event in the East Room of the White House on Thursday said as much about the president as it did about the country represented by the group of men and women 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 choice of whom to honor provides a window into his values ​​and priorities. Mr. Biden’s event was no different.

“Sister Simone Campbell is a gift from God,” Biden said as he announced to the public his decision to award the nation’s highest civilian honor to a nun who has spent decades fighting for social justice and helping people. poor. The choice of a longtime ally by Mr Biden, a practicing Catholic, is a testament to his decades of juggling politics and religion.

Before moving on to the other recipients, the president stopped to tell the story of Pope Benedict XVI asking him for advice. After protesting that giving advice to the pope would be presumptuous, Mr Biden, then vice president, relented.

“I would go easy on the nuns,” he remembers saying. “They are more popular than you.”

Mr Biden presented one of the medals to Richard Trumka, who led the AFL-CIO and was a powerful Democratic campaigner for years before his death last year. The decision to honor Mr. Trumka was a reflection not just of their personal ties, but of the role unions played in Mr. Biden’s career.

Since starting to run for office, Mr. Biden has molded himself as a “worker Joe,” someone who understands the needs of working people. Unions are among its staunchest supporters; the day before, Wednesday, he flew to Ohio for an event on pension reforms that benefit union workers.

“His work was fierce, always trying to do the right thing for the workers,” Mr Biden said of Mr Trumka as he presented the medal to Mr Trumka’s son, adding: “In addition 30 years of friendship, he was always honest, fair and tough and trustworthy.

On the presidential campaign in 2020, Mr. Biden sold himself to the nation as the most centrist Democratic option and as someone who could work on the other side of Congress to reach a compromise. He has struggled to do so since taking office, but Mr Biden’s choice of winners on Thursday showed how he still sees himself.

Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, was one of the medal recipients. Mr Biden called him “one of the most decent, honest, genuine guys I’ve ever served with – and I’ve served with a lot of senators”.

He also presented a medal to Mr. McCain, the former Arizona senator who has long been one of Mr. Biden’s closest friends. Mr. McCain’s wife, Cindy, accepted the award on behalf of Mr. McCain, who died in 2018.

“We used to argue like hell on the Senate floor,” Biden recalled. “But then we would go downstairs and have lunch together.”

The president recalled taking a trip with Mr. McCain decades ago and stopping in Hawaii, where Mr. Biden introduced his fellow senator to Cindy, adding, “He still owes me!”

As the audience laughed, Ms McCain appeared to wipe the tears from her eyes.

Mr. Biden also chose Ms. Biles, the most decorated American gymnast in history and a black woman who — at 25 — is the youngest person to ever receive the award, Mr. Biden said.

He paid tribute to Olympian and Women’s World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe, who championed gender pay equity, racial justice and gay rights.

He also singled out several individuals for their work promoting civil rights, including Diane Nash, founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and close ally of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.; Fred Gray, attorney for Dr. King and Rosa Parks; and Raúl Yzaguirre, who led the National Council of La Raza, an organization for the defense of Latino interests.

Taken together, the picks underscored Mr Biden’s belief in ensuring diverse groups are represented and highlighted how the civil rights struggles of recent decades have shaped his political career.

“Diane Nash shaped some of the most significant civil rights efforts in American history,” Mr. Biden said. “And yet,” he added, “she is the first to say the medal is shared with hundreds of thousands of patriotic Americans who have sacrificed so much in the cause of freedom and justice for all. “

“And by the way,” Mr. Biden said, “she asked me to make sure I added it because she didn’t want to take all the credit.”

Others who received medals on Thursday were former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was injured in a mass shooting; Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple who died in 2011; actor Denzel Washington, who the White House says missed the event due to a positive coronavirus test; Sandra Lindsay, a New York nurse who was the first American to receive a Covid-19 vaccine; Brig. General Wilma Vaught, one of the most decorated women in US military history; Khizr Khan, a Gold Star sire; Reverend Alexander Karloutsos, former Vicar General of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; and Julieta García, former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville.

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