By DARLENE SUPERVILLE
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Thursday presented the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to 17 people, including gymnast Simone Biles, the late John McCain, the Arizona Republican with whom Biden served in the Senate, and gun-control attorney Gabby Giffords.
“Today she’s adding to her medal count,” Biden said, introducing Biles, a former foster child whose 32 Olympic and world championship medals make her the most decorated American gymnast in history.
“I don’t know how you’re going to find room,” for another medal, Biden joked. The 25-year-old is an advocate for the mental health of athletes, foster children and victims of sexual assault. She is also the youngest person to ever receive the medal, Biden said.
The Democratic president, who took office at a critical time in the coronavirus pandemic, also paid tribute to Sandra Lindsay, the nurse from Queens, New York, who was the first person to be vaccinated against COVID-19 outside of clinical trials during a live television appearance at December 2020.
It was the first time Biden had awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His list of recipients included both living and deceased honorees, some of them representing different stages of the president’s life, from Catholic nuns who taught him as a boy growing up in Claymont, Delaware, to Republican lawmakers with whom he served in the Senate at college. professor like his wife, Jill, to supporters of tighter access to guns.
Biden introduced Giffords as “one of the bravest people I’ve ever known.”
The former Arizona congresswoman founded the organization named Giffords to campaign to end gun violence and gun access restrictions. The Democrat nearly died after being shot in the head in January 2011 at a constituent event in Tucson.
Biden noted that he recently signed into law the most sweeping gun control legislation in decades — though he and others would like even more restrictions — and credited Giffords and families like his whose life was altered by gun violence for helping to get there.
“She is the embodiment of a unique American trait: never, ever give up,” Biden said.
Biden also recognized former Republican senators Alan Simpson of Wyoming and John McCain of Arizona, recalling a less partisan era in Washington when members of different parties argued over issues during the day and then met around the corner. an evening dinner.
McCain died of brain cancer in 2018. He spent more than five years in captivity in Vietnam while serving in the United States Navy. He went on to represent Arizona in the House and Senate, and was the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, competing with Democrats Barack Obama and Biden.
Biden said he didn’t enjoy political competition, but “I never stopped admiring John…I knew his honor and his courage and his commitment.”
The 17 honorees “overcame significant odds to achieve awe-inspiring achievements in the arts and sciences, dedicated their lives to advocating for the most vulnerable among us, and acted bravely to drive change in their communities and to around the world, while blazing trails for generations to come,” the White House said.
Biden himself knows what it’s like to receive the medal. Then-President Obama honored Biden’s decades of public service by presenting him with a Presidential Medal of Freedom “with distinction” at a ceremony shortly before their departure in January 2017.
Biden closed the ceremony by saying, “This is America.”
The other 13 medalists are:
— Sister Simone Campbell, member of the Sister of Social Service and former executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice organization.
— Julieta Garcia, former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville. Garcia was the first Latina to become a college president, the White House said.
– Fred Gray, one of the first black members of the Alabama Legislative Assembly after Reconstruction. He was a prominent civil rights attorney who represented Rosa Parks, the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr. and, at 91, continues to practice law.
— Steve Jobs, co-founder, CEO and president of Apple Inc. He died in 2011.
— Father Alexander Karloutsos, assistant to Archbishop Demetrios of America. Karloutsos has advised several US presidents, the White House said. Biden said he was “one of my dear friends.”
– Khizr Khan, an immigrant from Pakistan, the son of an officer in Khan’s army was killed in Iraq. Khan rose to national prominence and became the target of Donald Trump’s wrath, after speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
— Diane Nash, founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which organized some of the most important civil rights campaigns of the 20th century and worked with King.
— Megan Rapinoe. The Olympic gold medalist and two-time women’s football world champion is captain of OL Reign in the National Women’s Soccer League. She is a strong advocate for gender pay equity, racial justice and LGBTQI+ rights. Biden said she was the first football play to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
— Simpson, who served in the Senate with Biden and was a prominent advocate for campaign finance reform, accountable governance and marriage equality. Biden called Simpson a “real deal” and joked that “he never takes himself too seriously or takes me seriously.”
– Richard Trumka, who had been president of the AFL-CIO, which has 12.5 million members, for more than a decade at the time of his death in August 2021. He was a former president of the United Mine Workers.
—Wilma Vaught. A Brigadier General, Vaught is one of the most decorated women in American military history, breaking down gender barriers as she rose through the ranks. When Vaught retired in 1985, she was one of seven female generals in the armed forces.
— Denzel Washington, two-time Oscar-winning actor, director and producer. He also has a Tony Award, two Golden Globes and the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. He is a longtime spokesperson for Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Washington was unable to attend Thursday’s ceremony after testing positive for COVID-19, the White House said. Biden said Washington will get his medal “when he can get here.”
— Raúl Yzaguirre. A civil rights defender, Yzaguirre served as president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza for 30 years.