President Joe Biden on Thursday awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, to 17 people. Recipients included two Olympic athletes — footballer Megan Rapinoe and gymnast Simone Biles — as well as Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington.
"On Monday, we celebrated the independence of our nation, a nation always a work in progress in creation of possibilities, the fulfillment of promises," Biden began. "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."
The president first spoke about Biles, a 25-year-old gold-medal-winning Olympic gymnast, who, he noted, was the youngest recipient of the medal. "Everyone stops everything every time she is on camera, just to watch."
As for Rapinoe, two-time World Cup winner and Olympic gold medalist, Biden not only applauded her incredible athletic abilities but also acknowledged her impact as a role model for people across America. He also described her as "a champion for [an] essential American truth that everyone — everyone — is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect."
Three people received awards posthumously: Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple; former Senator John McCain; and former AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
Cindy McCain, John McCain's widow, accepted the medal on his behalf. Biden reminisced about the friendship he shared with the Republican senator despite their opposing political beliefs. "We agreed on a lot more than we disagreed on," Biden said. "We both wanted to make things better for the country."
The rest of the medal recipients were Sister Simone Campbell, Julieta Garcia, Gabrielle Giffords, Fred Gray, the Reverend Alexander Karloutsos, Khizr Khan, Sandra Lindsay, Diane Nash, Alan Simpson, Wilma Vaught and Raúl Yzaguirre.
One of the award winners was unable to attend the ceremony at the White House because of an infection with COVID-19. "There's a man who couldn't be here today but wanted to be: Denzel Washington, one of our greatest actors in American history," Biden said. The president added that he would give Washington the Medal of Freedom at a later date.
After all the individuals received their medals, Biden turned to them and said, "This is America."