President Biden on Thursday presented the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to 17 people, including the gymnast. simone bilethe late John McCain, the Arizona Republican with whom Biden served in the Senate, and gun control advocate Gabby Giffords.
“Today, her number of medals increases,” Biden said as he introduced Biles, a former foster girl whose 32 world and Olympic 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 during the ceremony in the White House East Room. The 25-year-old is an advocate for the mental health of athletes, children in foster care and victims of sexual assault. He is also the youngest person to receive the medal, Biden said.
The president also honored sandra lindsaythe nurse from Queens, NY, who was the first person to be vaccinated against COVID-19 outside of clinical trials during a live television appearance in December 2020, shortly before Biden took office.
It was the first time Biden, a Democrat, had awarded the Medal of Freedom. His list of recipients included living and deceased honorees, some of whom represented various stages of the president’s life, from the Catholic nuns who taught him as a child in Claymont, Delaware, to the Republican lawmakers he served with in the Senate until a college professor like his wife, Jill, advocates restricting access to firearms.
Biden introduced Giffords as “one of the bravest people I’ve ever met.”
The former Arizona congresswoman founded the Giffords Law Center to campaign for an end to gun violence and restrictions on access to guns. The Democrat nearly died after being shot in the head in January 2011 during a Tucson rally.
Biden noted that he recently signed the most comprehensive gun control legislation in decades, though he and others would like even more restrictions, and credited Giffords and families like his, whose lives have been upended by gun violence, for help make this happen.
“She is the embodiment of a single characteristic American trait: never, never give up,” Biden said.
Biden also recognized former Republican senators McCain of Arizona and Alan Simpson of Wyoming, recalling a less partisan era when members of different parties discussed issues during the day and then met for dinner at night.
McCain died of brain cancer in 2018. He spent more than five years in captivity in Vietnam while serving in the US Navy. He later served in the US House of Representatives and Senate, and was the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, running against Democrats Barack Obama and Biden.
Biden said he didn’t appreciate political competition, but “I never stopped admiring John. … I knew the honor of him, the courage and commitment of him”.
The 17 honorees “have overcome significant obstacles to impressive achievement in the arts and sciences, dedicated their lives to championing the most vulnerable among us, and acted courageously to drive change in their communities and around the world, while they burned. pathways for generations to come,” the White House said.
Biden himself knows what it is to receive the medal. Then-President Obama honored Biden’s decades of public service by surprising him with a Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly before they left office in January 2017.
Biden closed the ceremony by declaring, “This is America.”
The other 13 medal winners are:
—Sister Simone Campbell, a 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 president of a university, the White House said.
—Fred Gray, one of the first black members of the Alabama Legislature after Reconstruction He was a noted civil rights attorney who represented Rosa Parks, the NAACP, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and, at 91, continues to practice law.
—Steve Jobs, the late co-founder, CEO and chairman of Apple Inc. Died in 2011.
—Father Alexander Karloutsos, assistant to Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios of America. Karloutsos has advised several US presidents, the White House said. Biden said that he is “one of my dear friends.”
—Khizr Khan, an immigrant from Pakistan whose army officer son was killed while saving others 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 who 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 World Cup soccer champion who captains the OL Reign in the National Women’s Soccer League. She is a leading advocate for gender pay equality, racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights.
—Simpson, who served in the Senate with Biden and has been a leading advocate for campaign finance reform, responsible government and marriage equality. Biden called Simpson the “real deal” and joked that “he never takes himself too seriously or me.”
—Richard Trumka, who had been president of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO for more than a decade at the time of his death in August 2021. He previously served as president of the United Mine Workers.
—Wilma Vaught, an Air Force brigadier general who broke gender barriers as she rose through the ranks to become one of the most decorated women in U.S. military history. When Vaught retired in 1985, she was one of the seven women 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 received the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. He is a longtime spokesperson for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Washington was unable to attend Thursday’s ceremony after testing positive for COVID-19 and will receive the medal from him “when he can get here,” Biden said.
—Raúl Yzaguirre, civil rights advocate and former president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza for 30 years. He served as the United States Ambassador to the Dominican Republic under Obama.
This story originally appeared on Los Angeles Times.