Biden will award Medal of Freedom to Simone Biles, John McCain and others
By Peter Baker
President Joe Biden announced late last week that he will present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 leaders from the worlds of politics, civil rights, sports, business, education and entertainment, including Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, actor Denzel Washington and the first American to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
The recipients, the first of his presidency, include a variety of barrier-breaking figures familiar to many Americans as well as prominent political veterans Biden has known over the years. The list includes three posthumous award recipients: Steve Jobs, pioneering co-founder of Apple; John McCain, longtime Republican senator and two-time presidential candidate; and Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president and Democratic power broker.
“These 17 Americans demonstrate the power of possibilities and embody the soul of the nation — hard work, perseverance and faith,” a White House statement said. “They have overcome significant obstacles to achieve impressive accomplishments in the arts and sciences, dedicated their lives to advocating for the most vulnerable among us and acted with bravery to drive change in their communities — and across the world — while blazing trails for generations to come.”
Biden will honor the recipients Thursday at the White House. The medal is the nation’s highest civilian award, first established in its current form by President John F. Kennedy and meant to honor “any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution” to national security, world peace or “cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” as the original executive order put it.
Over the years, presidents have typically used it to honor political allies, celebrities and Americans with stories that make a particular point that could be helpful to a White House at the moment. At times, presidents have used such medals to reach across the aisle, as Biden is attempting by honoring McCain, his longtime colleague and friend from their Senate days.
The relationship between the two was strained in 2008 when they were both on their respective party tickets, McCain as the Republican presidential nominee and Biden as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. Biden attacked McCain at the time as an “angry man” who was taking “the low road to the highest office in the land.” But the two later made up, and Biden comforted McCain’s family when the Republican senator died of brain cancer in 2018.
Biden’s list includes another prominent former Republican senator, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a popular wisecracking moderate who worked across the aisle even as he zinged politicians and journalists with his sharp wit. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was grievously injured during a mass shooting and became a leading voice for gun control, will also be honored.
Biden singled out several well-known civil rights leaders, including Diane Nash, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and close ally of Martin Luther King Jr.; Fred Gray, a lawyer for King, Rosa Parks and others, and later one of the first Black members of the Alabama Legislature since Reconstruction; and Raúl Yzaguirre, who led the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization, for 30 years.
In addition to Biles, the most decorated American gymnast in history with 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, a medal will go to Megan Rapinoe, another Olympian and a two-time Women’s World Cup champion. Biles has become a vocal advocate for mental health, foster children and victims of sexual assault, while Rapinoe has spoken out for gender pay equality, racial justice and gay rights.
Biden singled out others who overcame obstacles, including Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, one of the few early women to serve as a general in the American military; and Julieta Garcia, former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville and the first Hispanic woman to lead an American college. He will also honor Sandra Lindsay, a New York critical-care nurse who was the first American vaccinated for the coronavirus outside clinical trials.
The other recipients are Sister Simone Campbell, a leading Catholic social justice advocate; the Rev. Alexander Karloutsos, former vicar general of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, who has counseled multiple presidents; and Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father of a soldier killed in Iraq whose criticism of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign made him a hero of Democrats.