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Biden awards Medal of Freedom to Gabby Giffords, Simone Biles, John McCain

President Biden presents gymnast Simone Biles with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, on July 7 at the White House.
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden presents gymnast Simone Biles with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, on July 7 at the White House.

President Biden is presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in a ceremony that provides a feel-good moment for a White House grappling with polls indicating an overwhelming majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track and low approval ratings for Biden.

The 17 honorees range from 25-year-old Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast in history who has become an advocate for victims of sexual assault, to 90-year-old Alan Simpson, a Republican who represented Wyoming in the U.S. Senate for 18 years and advocated for campaign finance reform and marriage equality.

"The Fourth of July week reminds us what brought us together long ago and still binds us, binds us at our best," Biden said in the East Room of the White House. "We the people doing what we can to ensure the idea of America, a cause of freedom that 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 in this stage."

The recipients of the Medal of Freedom often reflect the sitting president. Former President Donald Trump presented the award to some of his staunchest political allies, like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and radio host Rush Limbaugh, along with athletes from one his favorite sports — golf.

Biden's honorees Thursday include Republicans and Democrats alike and feature giants in the labor and civil rights movements, two groups that have been central to his long political career.

Recipients include Diane Nash, who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and organized major civil rights campaigns, and the late Richard Trumka, former president of the AFL-CIO and United Mine Workers.

Receiving a posthumous award is the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a decorated Vietnam War veteran who died in 2018 of brain cancer. McCain and Biden served alongside each other in the Senate and found themselves on opposite sides of the presidential race in 2008 when McCain was the Republican nominee and Biden was then-Sen. Barack Obama's running mate. McCain's widow, Cindy McCain, endorsed Biden in 2020.

Sister Simone Campbell will receive the honor for her work as an advocate for health care policy, economic justice and immigration reform.

Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., will also be honored. Giffords was the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona state Senate and went on to serve in the U.S. Congress. She was shot in the head and severely wounded in 2011 during a constituent event. Her husband, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, is up for reelection this November.

Biden himself received this honor in 2017, when then-President Obama surprised his outgoing vice president with the medal. Obama called Biden, a "lion of American history."
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.