President Barack Obama surprised Vice President Joe Biden with the nation’s highest civilian honor -- the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- at a tribute event at the White House this afternoon. For the first and only time in Obama’s presidency, the award was given with distinction -- a title only awarded to Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Gen. Colin Powell in modern history.
The ceremony was kept secret from the vice president until he walked into the State Dining Room and found an audience filled with his family, the president’s family and colleagues from throughout his career.
At first, the president began the event as a formal farewell to a vice president with whom he has shared a remarkably close relationship and a salute to a partner at the White House he says made him “a better president and a better commander-in-chief.”
Obama described Biden’s love of “Amtrak and aviators,” and joked that the event “gives the internet one last chance to talk about our bromance.” The president said his family is proud to be “honorary Bidens” and shared memories of the bond the Obama and Biden families have shared during their time in office.
The vice president wiped a tear from his eye as Obama listed off his accomplishments that began at age 29 when Biden was elected to the Delaware Senate.
“To know Joe Biden is to know love without pretense, service without self-regard, and to live life fully,” said Obama.
“As one of his longtime colleagues in the Senate who used to be a Republican once said, if you can’t admire Joe Biden as a person you’ve got a problem,” Obama said. “So Joe, for your faith in your fellow Americans, for your love of country, and for your lifetime of service that will endure the generations…for the final time in president, I’m pleased to award the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Visibly moved, Biden turned around to dry his eyes, shaking his head in disbelief as the room stood to a standing ovation.
“With his charm, candor, unabashed optimism, and deep and abiding patriotism, Joe Biden has garnered the respect and esteem of members from both parties and the friendship of people across the nation and around the world, while summoning the faith, grace, and strength to overcome great tragedy,” read the medal’s citation. “This son of Scranton, Claymont and Wilmington has become one of the most consequential vice presidents in modern history and accolade that nonetheless rests firmly behind his legacy and as a husband, father and grandfather.”
During Biden’s eight years as vice president, he took on legislative efforts, most recently his “Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot,” part of the recently passed 21st Century Cures Act for which part was named after his son, Beau Biden. In 2015, Beau died at the age of 46 after years of battling brain cancer. The vice president made finding a cure for cancer his personal and political mission, and plans to continue his work after leaving the White House.
In his own, unprepared remarks, Biden struggled at times to finish sentences as he choked back tears.
“Mr. President, I’m indebted to you, I’m indebted to your friendship, I’m indebted to your family,” Biden said.
“This is a remarkable man,” Biden continued of Obama. “And I just hope that the asterisk in history that is attached to my name when they talk about this presidency is that I can say I was part of the journey of a remarkable man who did remarkable things for this country.”