WASHINGTON — After conferring the Presidential Medal of Freedom on 17 people, including the gymnast Simone Biles and a posthumous honor for John McCain, the longtime Republican senator, President Biden said, “This is America.”
But the celebratory event in the East Room of the White House on Thursday said as much about the president as it did about the country represented by the group of men and women he was honoring.
The event underscored Mr. Biden’s longstanding Catholic faith, his unwavering support for unions, his preference for centrist lawmakers and his belief in diversity. Any president’s choice of whom to honor offers a window into his values and priorities. The event hosted by Mr. Biden was no different.
“Sister Simone Campbell is a gift from God,” Mr. Biden said as he told the audience of his decision to give the nation’s highest civilian award to a nun who has spent decades fighting for social justice and helping the poor. The choice of a longtime ally by Mr. Biden, a practicing Catholic, was a testament to his decades juggling politics and religion.
Before moving on to the other recipients, the president stopped to tell the story of Pope Benedict XVI asking him for advice. After protesting that giving advice to the pope would be presumptuous, Mr. Biden, then the vice president, gave in.
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“I’d go easy on the nuns,” he recalled saying. “They’re more popular than you are.”
Mr. Biden gave one of the medals to Richard Trumka, who led the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and was a powerful Democratic activist for years before his death last year. The decision to honor Mr. Trumka was a reflection not only of their personal bonds, but of the role that unions have played in Mr. Biden’s career.
Since he began running for office, Mr. Biden has fashioned himself as a “working Joe,” someone who understands the needs of working people. Unions have been some of his most fervent supporters; just the day before, on Wednesday, he flew to Ohio for an event about pension reforms that benefit union workers.
“His work was fierce, always trying to do the right thing for working people,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Trumka as he delivered the medal to Mr. Trumka’s son, adding, “In more than 30 years of friendship, he was always honest, fair and tough and trustworthy.”
Campaigning for president in 2020, Mr. Biden sold himself to the nation as the most centrist Democratic option and as someone who could work across the aisle in Congress to reach compromise. He has struggled to do that since taking office, but Mr. Biden’s choice of honorees on Thursday demonstrated how he still saw himself.
Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, was one of the medal recipients. Mr. Biden called him “one of the most decent, stand-up, genuine guys I ever served with — and I served with a lot of senators.”
He also gave a medal to Mr. McCain, the former senator from Arizona who had long been one of Mr. Biden’s closest friends. Mr. McCain’s wife, Cindy, accepted the award on behalf of Mr. McCain, who passed away in 2018.
“We used to argue like hell on the Senate floor,” Mr. Biden recalled. “But then we’d go down and have lunch together.”
The president recalled being on a trip with Mr. McCain decades ago and stopping off in Hawaii, where Mr. Biden introduced his fellow senator to Cindy, adding, “He still owes me!”
As the audience laughed, Ms. McCain appeared to wipe tears from her eyes.
Mr. Biden also picked Ms. Biles, the most decorated American gymnast in history and a Black woman who — at 25 years old — is the youngest person ever to receive the award, Mr. Biden said.
He honored Megan Rapinoe, an Olympian and a Women’s World Cup champion, who has advocated gender pay equality, racial justice and gay rights.
He also singled out several people for the work they did to promote civil rights, including Diane Nash, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a close ally of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Fred Gray, a lawyer for Dr. King and Rosa Parks; and Raúl Yzaguirre, who led the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization.
Taken together, the picks underscored Mr. Biden’s belief in making sure diverse groups are represented and highlighted the ways in which the civil rights struggles of the past several decades have molded his political career.
“Diane Nash shaped some of the most important civil rights efforts in American history,” Mr. Biden said. “And yet,” he added, “she is the first to say the medal is shared with hundreds of thousands of patriotic Americans who sacrificed so much for the cause of liberty and justice for all.”
“And by the way,” Mr. Biden said, “she asked me to make sure to add that because she didn’t want to take all the credit.”
The others who received medals on Thursday were former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was injured during a mass shooting; Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple who died in 2011; the actor Denzel Washington, who the White House said missed the event because of a positive coronavirus test; Sandra Lindsay, a New York nurse who was the first American to receive a Covid-19 vaccine; Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, one of the most decorated women in the history of the U.S. military; Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father; the Rev. Alexander Karloutsos, the former vicar general of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; and Julieta García, the former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville.