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Darlene Superville, Associated Press
Darlene Superville, Associated Press
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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 whom Biden served with in the Senate, and gun-control advocate Gabby Giffords.
Watch the ceremony in the player above.
“Today, she adds to her medal count,” Biden said as he introduced Biles, a former foster child whose 32 Olympic and World Championship medals make her the most decorated U.S. 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 athletes’ mental health, foster care children and sexual assault victims. She’s also the youngest person to ever receive the medal, Biden said.
The Democratic president, who took office at a critical point during the coronavirus pandemic, also honored Sandra Lindsay, the Queens, New York, nurse who was the first person to be vaccinated against COVID-19 outside of clinical trials during a live television appearance in December 2020.
It was the first time Biden had awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His recipient list included both living and deceased honorees, some of them representing various stages of the president’s life, from the Catholic nuns who taught him as a boy growing up in Claymont, Delaware, to Republican lawmakers he served with in the Senate to a college professor like his wife, Jill, to advocates of tightening access to firearms.
Biden introduced Giffords as “one of the most courageous people I have ever known.”
The former Arizona congresswoman founded the organization named Giffords to campaign for an end to gun violence and restrictions on access to guns. The Democrat almost died after she was shot in the head in January 2011 during a constituent event in Tucson.
WATCH: How Gabby Giffords is using music to rewire her brain after being shot
Biden noted that he recently signed the most sweeping gun-control legislation in decades — though he and others would like even more restrictions — and credited Giffords and families like her own whose lives have been altered by gun violence for helping to make it happen.
“She’s the embodiment of a single signature American trait: never, ever give up,” Biden said.
Biden also recognized former Republican Sens. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and John McCain of Arizona, recalling a less partisan era of Washington in which members of different parties would argue over issues during the day and then meet over dinner at night.
McCain died of brain cancer in 2018. He spent more than five years in captivity in Vietnam while serving in the U.S. Navy. He later represented Arizona in the House and Senate, and was the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, competing against Democrats Barack Obama and Biden.
Biden said he didn’t appreciate the political competition, but “I never stopped admiring John … I knew his honor, his courage and commitment.”
The 17 people receiving honors “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,” 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 awarding him a Presidential Medal of Freedom “with distinction” during a ceremony shortly before they left office in January 2017.
Biden closed the ceremony by declaring, “This is America.”
The other 13 medal recipients are:
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