Washington — President Biden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom toon Thursday, including decorated Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, soccer star Megan Rapinoe and former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The late Sen. John McCain and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs received the award posthumously.
Actor Denzel Washington, who was also set to be honored, couldn't attend Thursday's ceremony, but Mr. Biden said he will give him the award at a later date.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the country's highest civilian honor, awarded to those who have made notable contributions to the U.S., world peace or "significant societal, public or private endeavors."
"The Fourth of July week reminds us what brought us together long ago and still binds us, binds us at our best," Mr. Biden said Thursday. "What we strive for — we the people, doing what we can to ensure the idea of America, the cause of freedom, shines like the sun to light up the future of the world. That's the soul of our nation. That's who we are as Americans. And that's what we see — an extraordinary, extraordinary group of Americans up here on this stage that I have the honor to recognize today with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian award."
The president took the time to recognize each recipient individually, sharing their contributions to the country and the world, starting with Biles.
"When we see her compete, we see unmatched, unmatched power and determination, grace and daring," the president said. "A trailblazer and a role model, when she stands on the podium, we see what she is — absolute courage to turn personal pain into greater purpose, to stand up and speak for those who cannot stand for herself. Today, she adds to her medal count of 32 — how are you going to find room? — 32 Olympic and world championship medals."
The president also had words of praise for McCain, with whom he served in the Senate. Mr. Biden recalled first meeting McCain when he was a military aide in the Senate, and said he encouraged McCain to run for office. McCain's widow, Cindy McCain, accepted the award on his behalf.
"We used to argue like hell on the Senate floor. But then we'd go down and have lunch together afterwards, as you remember," Mr. Biden said. "We ran against each other, which I didn't like, on tickets for the highest office in the land. I was a candidate for vice president, he was the candidate for president. I never stopped admiring John. Never said a negative thing about him in my life, because I knew his honor, his courage, and his commitment."
Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff were also in attendance Thursday, along with other government officials like GOP Rep. Liz Cheney.
President John F. Kennedy established the award in the 1960s. Mr. Bidenwhile he was vice president from former President Barack Obama in 2017.
Here is the full list of honorees:
One of the most accomplished gymnasts of all time, Biles has advocated for the mental health and safety of athletes, as well as victims of sexual abuse. She testified on Capitol Hill last year about Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctors convicted of sexually assaulting hundreds of women and girls.
Sister Simone Campbell
A member of the Sisters of Social Service, Campbell advocates for immigration reform and economic justice.
García is the former president of The University of Texas at Brownsville.
Giffords is a former member of Congress who survived an assassination attempt in 2011, and has since dedicated her life to gun violence prevention.
Gray is a civil rights attorney who represented Rosa Parks, the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr.
Jobs, who revolutionized global communication and computing as a co-founder of Apple, died in 2011.
Father Alexander Karloutsos
Karloutsos was formerly the Vicar General of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and has advised multiple U.S. presidents.
Khan iswho criticized Trump in a speech at the 2016 Democratic convention.
Lindsay is a New York nurse who served on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A naval aviator, McCain was held as a prisoner of war for years in Vietnam, and went on to serve as a congressman and senator for decades. He was the Republican Party's presidential nominee in 2008, and died in 2018.
Nash organized key civil rights campaigns during segregation.
Rapinoe, an Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion as a member of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team, has advocated for gender pay equality and LBGTQ+ rights.
Simpson was a U.S. senator from Wyoming for 18 years.
Trumka led the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor coalition, for more than a decade before he died last year.
Brigadier General Wilma Vaught broke barriers for women in the military, and was one of only seven female generals across the Armed Forces when she retired in 1985, according to the White House.
A civil rights advocate, Yzaguirre was the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic under former President Barack Obama.