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Biden Will Award Medal of Freedom to Simone Biles, John McCain and Others

WASHINGTON — President Biden announced Friday that he will award the Presidential Medal of Freedom next week to 17 leaders from the worlds of politics, civil rights, sports, business, education and entertainment, including Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, actor Denzel Washington and the first American to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.

The recipients, the first of his presidency, will include a variety of barrier-breaking figures known to many Americans, as well as prominent political veterans Biden has known over the years. The list includes three posthumous award winners: Steve Jobs, Apple’s pioneering co-founder; John McCain, the longtime Republican senator and two-time presidential candidate; and Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO president and Democratic power broker.

“These 17 Americans demonstrate the power of opportunity and embody the soul of the nation — hard work, perseverance and faith,” said a White House statement. “They overcame significant obstacles to achieve impressive achievements in the arts and sciences, devoted their lives to advocating for the most vulnerable among us, and acted bravely to effect change in their communities – and around the world – while they pave the way for future generations. †

The president will honor the recipients at the White House on Thursday. The medal is the nation’s highest civilian award, first established in its current form by President John F. Kennedy and intended to honor “anyone who has made an outstanding contribution” to national security, world peace or “cultural or other major public or private endeavours,” as the original executive order put it.

Over the years, presidents have mostly used it to honor political allies, celebrities, and Americans with stories that make a point that could be useful to a White House right now. Sometimes presidents have used such medals to reach down the aisle, as Mr. Biden tries by honoring Mr. McCain, his old colleague and friend from their Senate days.

The relationship between the two was tense in 2008 when they were both on their respective party tickets, Mr. McCain as the Republican presidential candidate and Mr. Biden as the Democratic vice presidential candidate. Mr Biden at the time attacked Mr McCain as an “angry man” who “took the low road to the highest office in the country”. But the two later made amends, and Mr. Biden comforted Mr. McCain’s family when the Republican senator died of brain cancer in 2018.

Biden’s list includes another prominent former Republican Senator, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a popular wisecracking moderate who worked down the aisle even as he chided politicians and journalists with his sharp wit. Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was badly injured in a mass shooting and became a leading voice for gun control, will also be honored.

The president named several well-known civil rights leaders, including Diane Nash, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a close ally of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Fred Gray, an attorney for Dr. King, Rosa Parks and others and later one of the first black members of the Alabama legislature since Reconstruction; and Raúl Yzaguirre, who led the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization for 30 years.

In addition to Ms. Biles, the most decorated American gymnast in history with 32 Olympic medals and World Cup medals, a medal goes to Megan Rapinoe, another Olympian and a two-time Women’s World Cup champion. Ms. Biles has become an outspoken advocate for mental health, foster children and victims of sexual assault, while Ms. Rapinoe has spoken out for gender equality, racial justice and gay rights.

Mr. Biden selected others who overcame obstacles, such as Brig. Gene. Wilma L. Vaught, one of the few early women to serve as generals in the United States Army; and Julieta Garcia, the former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville and the first Hispanic woman to run an American university. He will honor Sandra Lindsay, a New York intensive care nurse who was the first American to be vaccinated against the coronavirus outside of clinical trials.

Other recipients include Sister Simone Campbell, a leading advocate of Catholic social justice; the Rev. Alexander Karloutsos, former Vicar General of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, who has advised multiple presidents; and Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father of a soldier killed in Iraq whose criticism of Donald J. Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign made him a Democrat hero.

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