Medal of Freedom winners McCain, Giffords and others are ‘the soul of our nation’ – Reuters
WASHINGTON — It was a flippant remark from President Joe Biden during Thursday’s Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House, but Khizr Khan took it to heart: Father Gold Star plans to display his medal next to those won in battle by his late son.
It was just a moment of a sometimes somber, sometimes jovial event when Biden paid tribute to 17 Americans, including the late Sen. John McCain and former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whom he called “the soul of our nation” of the world of art, athletics and public service.
“I see an extraordinary, extraordinary group of Americans here on this stage whom I have the honor to recognize today with the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Biden told a packed crowd of family and friends in the East Room of the White House.
The 17 were the first to be honored by Biden with the medal, which was created in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy and is considered the nation’s highest civilian honor. Among the more than 600 recipients of the award are Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, astronaut Neil Armstrong, author Maya Angelou, tennis star Billie Jean King and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela.
Thursday’s recipients ranged from gymnast Simone Biles, the youngest recipient at 25, to Julieta Garcia, the first Hispanic woman to serve as college president, from actor Denzel Washington to civil rights leader of the ‘Alabama Fred Gray.
Biden spoke for about an hour, reciting the honorees’ accomplishments and remembering some, before draping the medal — a white-edged blue ribbon holding a star-shaped medal surrounded by eagles — around each person’s neck.
Biden called Giffords “one of the bravest people I’ve ever known” and said she was “the embodiment of…a uniquely meaningful American trait: never, never give up.”
Giffords represented Tucson in Congress for five years before she was shot during a January 2011 constituent event in the district, a mass shooting that killed six people and injured 13, including her. She is still struggling with the injuries she sustained in the shooting, but has since been a leading advocate against gun violence.
In a statement Thursday, Giffords called the award “the honor of a lifetime” and said being recognized for public service is “a blessing and a privilege.”
“Thank you again, Mr. President, for this honor, and thank you to my fellow Medal of Freedom recipients for leading such a brilliant path,” his statement read. The audience included her husband, Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Arizona, who is serving his first term in the Senate.
McCain represented Arizona for six terms in the Senate, much of which overlapped with Biden’s decades as a senator.
“John and I traveled the world together,” Biden said, telling an oft-repeated story of how they met when Biden was a freshman senator and McCain was a Navy liaison with his committee. . “We became friends, we agreed on a lot more than we disagreed on.”
“We used to argue like crazy in the Senate, but then we would go to lunch afterwards,” he said. Biden said he “never stopped admiring” McCain, even when they faced off during the 2008 presidential campaign, a race McCain lost to Biden and Barack Obama.
McCain was honored for his years of public service, as well as his service as a veteran who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison after being shot during the Vietnam War. McCain died in 2018 and his medal was accepted by his widow, Cindy, whom Biden named as an ambassador to the United Nations last year.
Khan was another great admirer of McCain, whom he considered a hero to himself and his family. Khan has often recounted how he shared McCain’s book, “Why Courage Matters,” with his son, Army Captain Humayun Khan. It was one of the last things the two men discussed before Humayun was killed in Iraq in 2004.
Although a lifelong Republican, Khan rose to prominence as a critic of then-candidate Donald Trump after Trump belittled McCain’s military service. He was honored Thursday for his role as the founder of the Constitutional Literacy and National Unity Center and for his service on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom under Biden.
Khan said it was good to see many members of McCain’s family at the White House event. And he also recalled the first time he met Biden, when Biden was vice president.
“You are my family,” Khan said of the 2016 meeting with Biden at the vice president’s residence in Washington. “If you ever feel overwhelmed, contact me, I’m here. It spoke to us.
Thursday’s meeting was more formal, but no less impactful for Khan, whose wife, children and grandchildren were with him.
“It was the realization of the honor bestowed on you,” Khan said after receiving the award. “Having family in the audience, they’re part of it too, they’re watching.”