Biden medal picks push partisan issues, and bipartisanship

Honorees include soccer star Megan Rapinoe, former GOP senators

President Joe Biden presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., one of 17 recipients to receive the nation's highest civilian honor, during a ceremony at the White House on Thursday.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Joe Biden presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., one of 17 recipients to receive the nation's highest civilian honor, during a ceremony at the White House on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 7, 2022 at 6:15pm

For Megan Rapinoe and Simone Biles, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Thursday was not just about collecting another piece of hardware. 

The decorated athletes have stood atop podiums around the world, but this time they weren’t recognized for what they did on the pitch and in the gym. Instead, they were recognized for off-field achievements.

President Joe Biden praised Biles, a 25-year-old gymnast, in the packed East Room of the White House as she became the youngest person to receive the highest civilian honor.

Biles, under immense pressure during last summer’s Olympic games, withdrew from some events after experiencing “the twisties” and chose to focus on her mental health — one of the causes for which she’s advocated. She also testified in front of Congress about the FBI’s mishandling of allegations that former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sexually abusing his patients.  

“When she stands on the podium, we see what she is — absolute courage — who turned personal pain into a greater purpose,” Biden said. “Today she adds to her medal count of 32 — how are you even going to find room?”

Gymnast Simone Biles receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Biden. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The ceremony included all the pomp and celebration of a White House event, and it was the first time Biden presented the nation’s highest civilian honor during his term, though he received one by surprise in 2017 when President Barack Obama gave it to his vice president. In addition to Rapinoe and Biles, 15 other people from the worlds of culture, innovation, business and public service were honored Thursday.

The honorees put a face on some of the most controversial issues in the U.S. as Americans continue to struggle with partisan gridlock, institutional racism and sexism, and deadly gun violence. Soccer star Rapinoe, whose World Cup-winning team declined an invitation to the White House when Donald Trump was president, is regularly criticized in conservative media for kneeling during the national anthem and voicing support for transgender athletes.

But Biden also displayed respect for bipartisanship, with two Republicans — former Sens. Alan Simpson and, posthumously, John McCain — among the recipients. The group also included Democratic former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who became the leader of a national activist group battling for stricter gun laws after surviving an assassination attempt.

Consensus builders

Both Simpson, 90, and McCain, who died in 2018, were consensus builders in what’s become a more fractured Senate since Biden left in 2009. 

Simpson, the Wyoming Republican who spent nearly two decades in the Senate, was known to work with Democrats on major legislation, Biden said, noting, “He never allowed his party or his state or anything to get in the way of what he thought was right.”

McCain, who lost his bid for president against the Obama-Biden ticket in 2008, was a Purple Heart recipient whose legacy as an Arizona senator includes an election law overhaul bearing his name. His award was accepted by his widow, Cindy McCain. 

Simpson’s relationship with Biden dates back a half-century, and the two worked together on the Senate Judiciary Committee of the 1990s. 

“We need more of your spirit back in the United States Senate on both sides of the aisle,” Biden told him. 

The applauding audience included former centrist Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and current Democratic Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Mark Kelly of Arizona, who is Giffords’ husband. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., also attended.

Biden awarded a medal to actor and philanthropist Denzel Washington, though he wasn’t in attendance. A White House pool report said his absence was because of a COVID-19 test result.  

The president also recognized Wilma Vaught, a brigadier general and trailblazing woman in the U.S. Air Force, and Sandra Lindsay, the nurse who got the first U.S. COVID-19 vaccine dose after clinical trials. 

Posthumous medals went to Apple founder Steve Jobs and Richard Trumka, a labor organizer and former AFL-CIO president. 

Civil rights figures Fred Gray, the attorney for Rosa Parks, and Diane Nash, who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr., received medals. So did Raúl Yzaguirre, the former leader of the Latino advocacy group now called UnidosUS, and Julieta García, the first Hispanic woman to be a college president. 

Khizr Khan, the Pakistani American father of an Army captain killed during the Iraq War in 2004, received a medal for his advocacy against Muslim discrimination. 

Religious leaders Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic social justice advocate, and Father Alexander Karloutsos, a former top official of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, were also given the award.

“Other than my family, the biggest impact in my life were the nuns at Holy Rosary and St. Helenas schools the Sisters of St. Joseph in Claymont, Del.,” Biden said. “You think I'm joking; I'm not. Nuns never forget a thing. Never.”

President’s values reflected

There are not always layers of meaning in every pick to receive the Medal of Freedom, which dates back to the Kennedy administration in 1963, said presidential historian David Greenberg.

Winners usually reflect the sitting president’s values to some extent and are typically recognized as safe picks — people whose accomplishments transcend politics and are recognized across all viewpoints. Biden’s picks were a return to normalcy, of sorts. 

“As he did with so many things, Trump politicized the process to a shameful degree,” Greenberg said. “In a sane universe, [radio host] Rush Limbaugh or [Ohio Rep.] Jim Jordan wouldn’t receive the medal.”

Greenberg called the 17 who received awards Thursday a mishmash. He decried a “depressing absence” of writers, intellectuals and musicians, and suggested some recipients reflected Democrats’ focus on identity politics. It’s a contrast from the people Biden chose from Congress, which highlight a regard for comity and bipartisanship. 

“In a way, this split tendency on today’s list reflects the White House split about whether it should pander to the left-wing base or search for national unity,” he said.