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Biden awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to 19, including Evers, Pelosi and Ledecky

By Azi Paybarah and Mariana Alfaro Washington Post

President Joe Biden on Friday gave the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to 19 people – with recipients covering nearly every corner of American life, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Olympic champion Katie Ledecky, Academy Award winner Michelle Yeoh and, posthumously, civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

During a ceremony held at the White House on Friday, Biden said he had the “extraordinary honor to bestow the nation’s highest civilian honor to 19 incredible people whose relentless curiosity, inventiveness, ingenuity and hope have kept faith in a better tomorrow.”

On Friday, Biden introduced all the nominees with brief descriptions of their work and contributions to the nation.

Biden joked that he was forced to write short introductions or else, “we’d be here for 12 hours.”

“(There is) much more to say about them,” Biden said. “But you all know how incredible they are.”

In 2017 President Barack Obama surprised Biden, his vice president at the time, by awarding him with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. A stunned Biden immediately turned away from the crowd that had gathered to watch the ceremony and wiped his face and eyes with his handkerchief. “I had no inkling,” Biden said after the medal was draped around his neck.

During his presidential tenure, Biden has awarded the medals to a range of figures, including Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington, inventor Steve Jobs and Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse in New York who treated patients during the pandemic.

This year’s 19 honorees are:

Mike Bloomberg

The founder of a successful financial services company who served three terms as mayor of New York. He left City Hall at the end of 2013 and briefly sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 (in a field that included Biden). Bloomberg, Biden said on Friday, “revolutionized our economy” and “transformed how we consume information.”

Gregory J. Boyle

A Jesuit Catholic president who founded Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention and rehabilitation program based in California. During his remarks, Biden said Boyle’s “service as a Jesuit priest over four decades reminds us of the power of redemption, rehabilitation and our obligation to those who have been condemned or counted out.”

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.)

The longtime House member, who stepped down from Democratic leadership in the chamber this year, was a pivotal supporter of Biden’s during the 2020 presidential primary. Biden said during the ceremony that he would not be standing there as president if it weren’t for Clyburn. “We’re a great nation … because we have good people like Jim Clyburn,” Biden said. “Of my fellow Americans, Jim is the best.”

Elizabeth Dole

A former Republican senator from North Carolina, she also served as transportation secretary under President Ronald Reagan, labor secretary during the George H.W. Bush administration and as president of the American Red Cross. A few years after her husband Robert J. Dole’s final White House bid, Elizabeth Dole sought the 2000 Republican presidential nomination before bowing out of the race in 1999 to endorse the eventual winner, George W. Bush. Biden on Friday said Elizabeth Dole was a “true partner” who was a “fierce advocate for military families and their caregivers.”

Phil Donahue

A journalist and former television talk show host who spent nearly 30 years on the air, Donahue helped change the genre by popularizing audience participation during his program. Biden said Donahue “steered the nation’s discourse.”

Medgar Evers

The World War II veteran and civil rights activist fought to desegregate Mississippi. A white supremacist fatally shot the 37-year-old Evers in his driveway in 1963. He was 37. Evers, Biden said during the ceremony, worked “tirelessly to end segregation.” His daughter, Rena, received the medal in his honor.

Al Gore

After serving two terms as vice president to Bill Clinton, the Democrat and environmental activist won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election but lost the race to George W. Bush following a closely contested recount in some parts of Florida and a controversial decision by the Supreme Court. Gore went on to make “An Inconvenient Truth,” an Oscar-winning documentary about the dangers of climate change. Biden said Gore will be remembered “for many reasons.” “Among them will be your honesty, your integrity and the legacy of your service,” he said.

Clarence Jones

The lawyer and longtime civil rights activist helped write Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, once lauded Jones as “the ultimate inspiration” who helped “bend the arc of history toward justice and freedom.” Jones, Biden said on Friday, helped “define the enduring ideas included in the dream that will be (forever) engraved in the ethos of America.”

John F. Kerry

In more than 40 years of public service, Kerry served as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, secretary of state during the Obama administration and as Biden’s climate czar. Before being elected to office he fought in the Vietnam War and later spoke out against it. He also ran for president in 2004, falling to Republican incumbent George W. Bush. Biden on Friday said Kerry is a “patriot (of) the highest order.” “You’re the real deal, John,” he said.

Frank Lautenberg

The Democrat served five terms as senator from New Jersey, the longest senatorial tenure in the state’s history. He died in 2013. On Friday, Biden – who worked with him in the Senate – said Lautenberg will be remembered as a “tireless advocate for consumers, public health and safety.”

Katie Ledecky

The swimmer won seven Olympic gold medals and 21 world championship gold medals, more than any other woman in the sport. Biden, in his remarks Friday, joked about Ledecky’s plans to compete at this summer’s Olympics at age 27 – an age that some consider “old” in the sport. The president, who has been criticized for running for office again at 81, told Ledecky that “age is just a number.” “Don’t let age get in your way,” he said.

Opal Lee

The educator and civil rights activist is known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” for her efforts to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Decades after a mob of 500 white supremacists set fire to Lee’s childhood home as the 12-year-old Lee and her family fled, she was at the White House in 2021 as Biden signed into law legislation establishing the Juneteenth holiday. “We’re a better nation because of you,” Biden told Lee on Friday.

Ellen Ochoa

The onetime director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center also was the first Hispanic woman to fly to space. Biden said Ochoa, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, proved “what it means for every generation to dream.”

Nancy Pelosi

The congresswoman from California led House Democrats for two decades and became the first woman elected House Speaker, a position she stepped away from in 2023. Pelosi continues to serve in Congress, where she’s represented a San Francisco-area district for more than 30 years. Biden said that, on Jan. 6, 2021, the day of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, Pelosi – who was then House speaker – “stood up for extremism with absolute courage.” “History will remember you, Nancy, as the greatest speaker of the House of Representatives,” Biden said to wide applause.

Jane Rigby

The NASA astrophysicist became a senior project scientist in 2023 of one of the world’s most powerful telescopes. She also grew up in Delaware, Biden’s home state. In his remarks Friday, Biden said the result of Rigby’s work is “breathtaking.”

Teresa Romero

The president of the United Farm Workers was the first Latina woman to lead a national union in the United States. Romero, Biden said, has “made life better for thousands of farmworkers who put food on our tables.”

Judy Shepard

She cofounded an organization to reduce hate crimes after her son, Matthew, was killed in a violent anti-gay attack in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. The foundation she began was instrumental in the 2009 passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which broadened the definition of a hate crime. Shephard’s advocacy, Biden said on Friday, is “a reminder that we must give hate no safe harbor, and we can turn it into purpose.”

Jim Thorpe

The first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal later became a hall-of-fame football and baseball player. He died in 1953. In his remarks, Biden said Thorpe “showcased unparalleled athleticism” and transcended racial barriers.

Michelle Yeoh

After a decadeslong Hollywood career, Yeoh last year became the first Asian artist to win best actress at the Academy Awards for her role in the offbeat action comedy “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Biden said Yeoh “has shattered stereotypes and glass ceilings to enrich (and) enhance American culture.”