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‘Extraordinary honor’: Biden gives Presidential Medal of Freedom to Pelosi, Clyburn, Kerry and others

White House event was a throwback to a less-partisan time

President Joe Biden pins a Presidential Medal of Freedom around the neck of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Friday at the White House.
President Joe Biden pins a Presidential Medal of Freedom around the neck of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Friday at the White House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden on Friday awarded the country’s highest civilian honor to a number of current and former lawmakers and political figures at an event that was a stately throwback to another political era amid today’s bare-knuckle politics.

Biden, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President Barack Obama in a surprise ceremony, presented the same honor to nearly 20 individuals at the White House. The list included former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; former Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn, D-S.C.; former Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., and the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J.

With Biden’s expected rematch with former President Donald Trump already heating up and with the incumbent trailing him in some swing-state polls, the timing of Friday’s awards took on a distinct now-or-not-for-a-while feel, should Trump win in November. But rather than taking on a partisan feel, the late-afternoon East Room ceremony harkened back to a less-combative time as Biden pinned medals on the recipients.

Biden called giving out the awards an “extraordinary honor” and lauded the recipients’ collective “relentless curiosity” and “ingenuity,” saying each pursued a “better tomorrow.”

He heaped praise on each honoree, using descriptions like “champion for dignity,” “trailblazer,” “fierce advocate” and “first-rate.”

Here is a look at those who were honored.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi

The California Democrat was the first woman speaker, taking the gavel the first time in 2007 and holding it until 2011. She returned to the speakership in 2019, a post she held until 2023. “She used her superpowers to pass some of the most significant laws in our nation’s history,” Biden said, adding: “History will remember you as the greatest speaker of the House of Representatives. … I love you, kid.”

Pelosi ran a tight ship, and often reminded reporters that she was an appropriator by training and a skilled legislator. She rarely put a major or controversial bill on the floor without first being sure it would pass.

One of her top accomplishments was helping Obama shepherd the 2010 health care overhaul through the House. Later, she often clashed with Trump — arguing openly with him in the Oval Office in front of journalists and later ripping up her copy of his State of the Union address.

Rep. James E. Clyburn

The South Carolina Democrat became something of a kingmaker during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. His endorsement of Biden in the Palmetto State helped springboard the former vice president to the party’s nomination. “Jim has guided South Carolina and our country with a steady hand and honest heart for over the last half-century,” Biden said. “I would not be standing here as president making these awards without Jim.”

As a student activist leader at South Carolina State University, Clyburn helped organize a number of civil rights marches and demonstrations.

“Through three decades in the House, Rep. Clyburn has transformed the lives of millions of Americans and created a freer country,” the White House said in a statement.

Former Vice President Al Gore

The former Tennessee House member later became a senator before becoming the vice president to President Bill Clinton. He conceded the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush after a lengthy court battle, a move that often is cited as a contrast to Trump trying to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden. Gore did so “for the sake of unity and trust in our institutions,” Biden said.

Gore has since become a leading global voice on climate issues. He once pitched a “lock box” aimed at preserving the Medicare program, which drew parodies from comedians, including on “Saturday Night Live.”

“He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for his bold action on climate change,” the White House said.

Former Sen. John F. Kerry

The Massachusetts lawmaker was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later became secretary of State under Obama. He has garnered praise from Democrats and scorn for Republicans for his role in a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Biden honored his six decades of service, calling him a “patriot of the highest order” and noted that Kerry was awarded a Silver Star for his service in Vietnam.

Until earlier this year, Kerry was Biden’s global climate change czar — another post at which Republicans used to take jabs.

During Kerry’s unsuccessful 2004 campaign against then-President George W. Bush, a new term for turning a candidate’s biographical asset into an attack was coined: “Swift-boating.” Republicans made a list of accusations about Kerry’s record as the captain of a small Navy ship during the Vietnam War.

The late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg

The Democrat, who died in 2013, was the only New Jersey senator to win five terms and became an influential member of the Appropriations Committee. “Frank is remembered as a tireless advocate for consumers, public health and safety,” said Biden, who served alongside Lautenberg in the Senate.

The New York Times described him as “never a flashy senator,” adding in an obituary that he “had a consistently liberal voting record. Americans for Democratic Action said he had voted liberal 94 percent of the time.”

He was perhaps best known for taking on the tobacco and alcohol industries, pushing to ban smoking on airplanes and battle drunken driving. But those were not his only issues. “He is remembered for his critical work on environmental protection and consumer safety across a number of fields,” according to the White House summary.

Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole

In addition to serving as a Republican senator from North Carolina from 2003 to 2009, Dole also served as secretary of both Transportation and Labor, as well as president of the American Red Cross.

Today, Dole “leads by example through her foundation’s support for military caregivers and their families,” the White House noted.

She also was the wife of the late Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., whom Biden said he misses “dearly.”

Michael Bloomberg

A three-term mayor of New York City — at first as a Republican, then as an independent — the billionaire Bloomberg also was a 2020 candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The White House described him as an “entrepreneur” and “philanthropist” who “revolutionized the financial information industry and transformed New York City’s education, environment, public health and the arts.”

Biden said Bloomberg “challenged us” and revolutionized our economy.” He also said, as mayor, Bloomberg “rebuilt the city of New York after 9/11.”

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