Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom and an Exchange With Reporters
The President. Please—please, have a seat.
Good afternoon, and welcome to the White House. I know this is a—not a—it's kind of an old place for some of the guys that are coming here, but thank you all very much. And to all the Cabinet members and elected officials that are here and former elected officials like Joe Lieberman and—a good friend, who's here. So many critical people and important people.
I want to thank the Vice President, Vice President Harris, and Second Gentleman for allowing us to join them. No, it's—joining us. [Laughter] But it is always a pleasure when we get to hang out together.
On Monday, we celebrated the independence of our Nation, a nation always a work in progress, in creation of possibilities, a fulfillment of promises. That's the American story. It's not a simple one. It's never been a simple one.
But the Fourth of July week reminds us what brought us together long ago and still binds us, binds us at our best, we strive for—what we strive for: we, the people, doing what we can to ensure the idea of America, a cause of freedom, shines like the Sun to light up the future of the world.
That's the soul of our Nation, and 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.
Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast in history, who everyone stops everything every time she was on camera—[laughter]—just to watch, just to see her. When we see her compete, we see unmatched—unmatched—power and determination, grace and daring.
A trailblazer and a role model, when she stands on the podium, she sees—we see what she is: absolute courage to turn personal pain into greater purpose, to stand up and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
Today she adds to her medal count of 32. I don't know if you're going to find room. [Laughter] Thirty-two Olympic and World Championship medals. At age 25, the youngest person ever to receive the Medal of Freedom—the youngest ever, with so much more to give.
A fellow elite athlete, Megan—Megan Rapinoe, where—Megan. There you are. Megan is one of the most accomplished soccer players and the first soccer player to receive the Medal of Freedom. Beyond the World Cup titles and the Olympic medals, Megan is a champion for essential American truth: that everyone—everyone—is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. Everyone.
And along with her incredible teammates of the United States Women's National Team—and by the way, my son Hunter and daughter-in-law are here; his daughter is a great high school athlete, and she was enough—so excited to be with you when you won the national—when you won the championship, and walking off the field. And I said, "We said hi to you." And she said, "I was busy." [Laughter]
So when she wins again, I hope I see her, and she'll say, "I think I know that guy." [Laughter] Maybe——
U.S. Women's National Soccer Team Forward Megan A. Rapinoe. We'll see. Yes.
The President. It depends. Depends. [Laughter]
Ms. Rapinoe. I think yes. [Laughter]
The President. Megan did something really consequential. She helped lead the change for perhaps the most important victory for anyone on her soccer team or any soccer team: equal pay for women. Equal pay for women.
And, Megan, like Simone, I hope there's room for this medal between all the other awards you and Sue have received during your remarkable careers and your reckless play. I've watching you. My Lord, you have such—you are good, kid, I mean. [Laughter]
Simone and Megan would be the first to acknowledge they stand on the shoulders of those who came before them, like Air Force Colonel—Brigadier General Retired Wilma Vaught. And Wilma is one of the most decorated women ever to serve in the United States military.
She enlisted in the 1950s because she wanted to be a leader. She did that and more, becoming the first woman in almost every leadership role she held in nearly 30 years in uniform, shattering convention, shaping a new tradition of our military.
And she couldn't stop after retirement. She led the creation of the Women's Military Service for America Memorial at the gateway of Arlington National Cemetery—the first museum of its kind—so that we may know and be inspired by not just her story, but by the stories of millions of women who served this Nation in uniform.
As a 23-year-old student at Fisk University, Diane Nash received a phone call from Attorney General Robert Kennedy's top deputies, warning her about the violence at the next stop of the Freedom Ride she organized across the South. She replied, and I quote: "We all signed our last will and testaments before they left. We know someone will be killed, but we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence."
The President. Think of that.
With unmistakable courage and unshakeable courage and leadership, Diane Nash shaped some of the most important civil right efforts in American history. A key architect of the sit-in movement in Nashville. After four little girls were murdered at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, she called for a nonviolent movement across Alabama that planted the seeds that became the Selma campaign 2 years later.
Her activism echoes the call of freedom around the world today. And yet she is the first to say the medal is shared with hundreds of thousands of patriotic Americans who sacrificed so much for the cause of liberty and justice for all. And by the way, she asked me to make sure to add that because she didn't want to take all the credit herself.
When Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and Claudette Colvin and John Lewis and other giants of our history needed a lawyer for their fight for freedom, you know who they called? They called a guy named Fred Gray. That's who they called.
One of the most important civil rights lawyers in our history, Fred's legal brilliance and strategy desegregated schools and secured the right to vote. He went on to be elected as one of the first African Americans to Alabama State Legislature since Reconstruction.
An ordained minister, he imbued a righteous calling that touched the soul of our Nation. And at 91 years young, he's still practicing law and still—[applause]—and he's still keeping the faith in the best of America.
And the best of America includes Raúl. Raúl, you're something else, man. [Laughter] No, you really are. You really are. Raúl was a son of a father who fled violence in Mexico and a mother who was a multigeneration Texan. Raúl dreamed of American Dream from San Juan, Texas, in the lower Rio Grande Valley. He served with honor in the United States Air Force, then turned a small civil rights group into one of the Nation's most important ones.
For over 30 years, as president of the National Council for La Raza, Raúl was an undaunted leader in the struggle for civil and human rights for Latino Americans, challenging the powerful on behalf of the powerless, never forgetting where he came from and the promise of this Nation.
Born in Brownsville, Texas, Juliet Garcia became a professor at the local community college. I know I'm biased since Jill is a community college professor, but community college professors are the best. That's—[inaudible]. And I've learned teaching isn't what she or Jill does, it's who they are. It's who Juliet is.
Over the course of her nearly 30-year career, she helped transform her community college into the University of Texas at Brownsville, where she became its president and the first Hispanic woman to serve as a college president in American history.
Believing education is a cornerstone of our democracy, she created a culture of excellence, affirmation, and intellectual curiosity for generations of students, many the first in their families to go to college and who see their American Dream through her and because of her.
Other than my family, the biggest impact on my life were the nuns at Holy Rosary and St. Helena's School, the sisters of St. Joseph in Claymont, Delaware. You think I'm joking. I'm not. [Laughter] Nuns never forget a thing. [Laughter] Never.
And by the way, I was doing Villanova's commencement, and one of my nuns from school was getting her doctorate degree. I presented it to her, and she said, "That was pretty good, Joe, but you said 'you' instead of 'me' at the time." [Laughter]
They taught me in school. And they helped me. I used to stutter very badly. They gave me confidence. They gave me confidence that I could do anything. They really did.
For so many people and for the Nation, Sister Simone Campbell is a gift from God. And for the past 50 years, she's embodied the belief in our church that "faith without works is dead" and will know me for what—you will know me for what I do, and what you do the least of thee you do unto to me. That's Sister Simone. That's what she does. The Nuns on the Bus were simply, simply remarkable.
I wasn't supposed—I wasn't going to do this. They told me not to, but I'm going to do it anyway. I'm going to tell a story. [Laughter] I went over to see Pope John—excuse me, Pope Benedict in his last couple months—we didn't know at the time. And we had a long conversation. He's a great theologian, a very conservative theologian. And my avocation is theology. You come to my house, there's a whole wall on comparative theology. I know, Alan, it's my—[inaudible].
And so we finished the conversation. He was very generous. And he put his hand across the desk and put it on my hand. He said, "Can I ask you a favor"—and, then, I was Vice President—"Mr. Vice President?" I said, "Of course, Your Holiness." He said: "I'd like some advice. Do you have any advice for me?" I said, "It'd be presumptuous for me to give you advice, Your Holiness." He said, "No, really." And I smiled, and I said, "Well, one piece of advice." I said: "I'd go easy on the nuns. They're more popular than you are." [Laughter]
The fact that 6 weeks later he retired—I don't know what it—[inaudible]—doing. [Laughter]
But, Sister, your standing up was a big deal—a big, big deal—becoming a lawyer to represent the poor and the left behind. A decade ago, as the Nation was debating the Affordable Care Act and the values of our budgets, there she was leading a group of nuns in a nationwide bus campaign to make the case—the moral case—that health care is a right in this country, not a privilege, and the obligation to help other people most in need.
Compassionate and brave, humble and strong, today, Sister Simone remains a beacon of light. She's the embodiment of a covenant of trust, hope, and progress of our Nation. And I call her—I'm happy to call her my friend. Thank you, Sister.
Another dear friend of mine, and the reason why back in Delaware, in the Greek community, I'm known as "Joe Bidenopolous"—[laughter]—you think I'm joking. Father knows that I'm not. [Laughter] Father asked me whether I'm still blessing my—we, Roman Catholics, bless ourselves down here and to the left shoulder.
[At this point, the President demonstrated the sign of the cross.]
Greek Catholics go down and to the right shoulder. I find myself being more Greek sometimes than others. [Laughter] It gets me in trouble.
You want to know how I—but, Father Karloutsos, you—more than 50 years, your leadership in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has mattered to every—every—prelate in the Greek church. You've been an incredible leader, Father.
A man of deep moral clarity and calling, he's advised generations of Presidents and parishioners and unmatched—with unmatched humility and grace. I've traveled the country and the world with him, including to Father Alex's homeland in Greece, to strengthen the bonds between two nations founded on the belief that democracy is the way.
And on more than one occasion, Father Alex and I've had the honor to visit His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, which was a great honor. This is the hundredth anniversary of the Greek Orthodox Church in America. We honor one of the most dedicated leaders, my dear friend, Father Alex.
And speaking of faith, when you meet Gabby Giffords—Congresswoman Giffords—you're reminded of the strength of faith and the power of public service. Elected by the people of her hometown of Tucson, Arizona, because they trusted her. They trusted her. They still trust her. They believed in her. They learned—and they learned as a nation what they—what the whole Nation has learned—that she is the embodiment of the most of—the most—of a single, significant American trait: Never, ever give up.
My dad, Hunt's grandfather, used to have an expression. He said: "Never bend, never bow, never yield, never give up. Just get up, Joey. Just get up."
Proof that we'll not grow numb to the epidemic of gun violence in this Nation. Proof that we can channel the pain and sorrow we see too often in America into a movement that will prevail.
With her husband, United States Senator Mark Kelly—who, by the way, was that astronaut you all remember—[laughter]—she's more consequential, I acknowledge. But—[laughter]—but they're helping power that movement.
On Monday, we'll celebrate the most significant gun safety law in 30 years because of them and because of the families like theirs all across America. Gabby is one of the most courageous people I have ever known.
One of the most decent, standup, genuine guys I've ever served with—and I've served with a lot of Senators—is this guy, Alan Simpson. Alan is the real deal. A former United States Senator from his beloved Wyoming, a Republican, we served together in the United States Senate for nearly two decades.
And one of the great things about Alan is, he never takes himself too seriously, nor takes me seriously. [Laughter] All kidding aside, this is the real deal. This is one of the finest men I've ever worked with.
At his core, he's always believed in the common good and what's best for the Nation. We didn't agree on everything, although we agreed in a whole heck of a lot. He allowed his—he never allowed his—I don't know, his party or his State or anything to get in the way of what he felt was right. He allowed his conscience to be his guide. And he believed in forging real relationships, even with people on the other side of the aisle, proving we can do anything when we work together as the United States of America.
It matters. It matters. It matters. We need more of your spirit back in the United States Senate on both sides of the aisle.
Just ask Khizr Khan, who studied the U.S. Constitution as a law student in Pakistan. Inspired by its meaning, he immigrated to America with his wife and their young family when they were very little, but fully believing in the promise of this Nation.
They watched their middle son enlist in the United States Army with his own dreams to be a military lawyer, but ultimately sacrificed himself to serve his fellow soldiers. And we all watched as the oldest and darkest forces of hate emerged in new ways, only to meet the strength, goodness, and decency of this Gold Star American family.
Late—in late November 2016, I invited the Khans to the Vice President's Residence, the Naval Observatory, for a Diwali reception. An Irish Catholic Vice President and a Muslim Gold Star family at a reception observing a Hindu holiday, that—I'm being very serious—that's the America that we know. That's the America he and I and most of you, I pray God, believe in.
We were parents united by the pain of losing a piece of our souls and finding the purpose to live a life worthy of them. After today's—a father's Medal of Freedom will rest next to a son's Bronze Star and Purple Heart. And, Khizr Khan, you will continue to carry a copy of the Constitution—I didn't ask you, but I imagine it's still in your pocket—[laughter]—as a reminder of the charge that has to be kept.
When she was 18 years old, Sandra Lindsay immigrated to Queens, New York, from Jamaica to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. As director of nursing and critical care at a hospital in Queens during the heighth of the pandemic, she poured her heart into helping patients fight for their lives and to keep their fellow nurses safe. And when the time came, she was the first person in America to get fully vaccinated outside of clinical trials.
Sandra, as I told you before, if there's any angels in Heaven, they're all nurses, male and female. [Laughter] No, for real. They really are. Many of you who have spent a lot of time in the hospital, as some of us have, you know. Doctors let you live. Nurses, male and female, make you want to live. Make you want to live.
Sandra's vaccination card and hospital scrubs and badge are part of a Smithsonian National Museum of American History exhibit on COVID-19. Today she receives our Nation's highest civilian honor and deserves it.
And a man who couldn't be here today, but wants to be—wanted to be, Denzel Washington. One of our greatest actors in American history: Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Tony Awards, wide acclaim and admiration from audiences and peers around the world. He couldn't be with us today, but I'm—I'll be giving him this award at a later date when he's able to get here.
I'll now turn to the three medalists who are being awarded the medals posthumously. To the families, I know receiving this award on behalf of their loved one is bittersweet. It brings—it's an honor, but it brings back everything and it's hard. It brings you—it reminds you of the day that you lost them. But I know, anything that I—and I appreciate your willingness to be here on this day.
We've already seen more technological change in the last 10 years than almost ever before in history. We're going to see a lot more change in the next 10 years. And much, much more of that is because of Steve Jobs.
Not just because of his innovations and inventions revolutionized personal computing and our way of life; it's for his embodiment of a core American character that he believed was in each of us, character that tested—got tested in setback and failure, character that's true in perseverance and daring, character defined by what we leave on this Earth when our time comes.
And what Steve left us is something special: technology with the capacity to improve our lives in ways that haven't even yet been thought of. And the love of his family, Laurene Powell Jobs and their children, who I had the great honor of working with on the—when I was doing the Cancer Moonshot in the previous administration—they carry on this incredible legacy of doing big things. Perhaps biggest of all, helping us end cancer as we know it—because it matters. It matters. It matters to people who need help—is why they do it—and it mattered to Steve Jobs.
Richard Trumka, he said about unions, quote, "We do America's work." No one did more work for American workers than he did. For Rich, his work was synonymous with the word that defined his life: dignity. Dignity. The dignity that comes with a good-paying job that builds a good and decent middle class life.
And his work was fierce, always trying to do the right thing for working people: fighting for and protecting their wages and their safety and their pensions they earned and deserved; fighting for the worker power and for America itself and our economic might and dynamism.
In more than 30 years of friendship, he was always honest and fair and tough and trustworthy, the guy you want in your corner. In fact, I was in Cleveland yesterday announcing one of the most significant actions to protect pensions for millions of workers and retirees in 50 years.
Barbara, Rich Jr., and the family, we felt him there. We felt him there with us, and we talked about him. And we feel him here today. Rich Trumka was the American worker—was the American worker.
When I was a young man—too young to be serving in the Senate, but early enough—old enough to get elected—you have to—you can't get—you can't be sworn in until you turn 30, but you can get elected before that. I got elected 17 days before that.
And I had the great honor, because of a guy named Mansfield, the majority leader from Montana, to put me on a very coveted committee at the time, the Foreign Relations Committee—that's when I first met John McCain, a couple years later.
He was a Navy liaison in the United States Senate and the liaison to our committee. When we traveled, we traveled with a Navy liaison personnel. We—John and I traveled the world together—literally traveled the world together. We became friends. We agreed on a lot more than we disagreed on. And although he was my Navy liaison, I turned to him for advice lots of times when we were talking about foreign policy issues abroad.
But the two things we never talked about: We never talked about his imprisonment in the Hanoi Hilton nor the death of my wife and my daughter. The pains were significantly different, but somehow, we seemed to sort of understand one another. It was a long time ago.
We both wanted to make things better for the country that we both loved, and that never wavered. In fact, I admit to my Democratic friends, I'm the guy that encouraged John to go home and run for office. [Laughter] For real. Because I knew what incredible courage, intellect, and conscience he had.
We used to argue like hell on the Senate floor, but then we'd go down and have lunch together afterwards, as you remember. We ran against each other, which I didn't like, on tickets for the highest offices 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. That was John McCain and the code he inherited from his family that served before him and is passed on to his brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren today.
Cindy—Madam Ambassador, and the family: I'm honored you're here to accept this medal on his behalf. As they say in the Senate, a point of personal privilege: I was staffing—John was staffing me on a trip to Asia in the late seventies. And we stopped in—where—there you are. We stopped in Hawaii. And, Cindy, I think you were there on vacation. [Laughter] And you were talking to my wife Jill. And John kept looking at her. [Laughter] And he couldn't—and he talked about her.
So Jill and I did something which was a little presumptuous: We made sure they introduced one another. He stills owes me. [Laughter] I think it's the best thing we ever did for John—the very best. That's true.
That's what he talked about when we left. And he didn't take long to call you—did he?—when he got back. [Laughter]
My fellow Americans, please congratulate this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients.
And now I'm going to ask the Military Aide to read the rest of the citations as we present the medals.
Please, be seated.
[At this point, Lt. Col. Raymond J. Roe, USAF, Air Force Aide to the President, read the citation for gymnast Simone Biles. The President then presented the medal, assisted by Lt. Cmdr. Jayna G. McCarron, USCG, Coast Guard Aide to the President.]
[Lt. Col. Roe read the rest of the citations, and the President presented the medals, assisted by Lt. Cmdr. McCarron.]
This is America.
Folks, this concludes this event. But I—we have a reception. I hope you'll stay and enjoy it.
Again, thank you, thank you, thank you all.
White House aide. Ladies and gentlemen, please remain in your seats as the President and Vice President, the Second Gentleman, and medalists depart the East Room. Thank you.
[As the President exited the room, a reporter asked a question as follows.]
Resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom
Q. President Biden, any reaction to Boris Johnson resigning as Prime Minister?
The President. No, it's part of the process.
NOTE: The President spoke at 2:25 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to former Sen. Joseph I. Liberman; Douglas C. Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala D. Harris; Sue Bird, guard, Women's National Basketball Association's Seattle Storm, wife of Ms. Rapinoe; New York City resident and civil rights activist Claudette Colvin; former U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic Raúl H. Yzaguirre, in his former capacity as chief executive officer and president of the National Council of La Raza; Ghazala Khan, wife of medal recipient Khizr Khan; Lisa Brennan-Jobs and Eve, Erin, and Reed Jobs, children of posthumous medal recipient Steven P. Jobs; Barbara Trumka, wife, and Richard L. Trumka, Jr., son, of posthumous medal recipient Richard L. Trumka; and U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Agencies in Rome Cindy Hensley McCain, wife of posthumous medal recipient Sen. John S. McCain III. He also referred to his daughter-in-law Melissa Cohen.
Joseph R. Biden, Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom and an Exchange With Reporters Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/357284