Biden Honors Prominent Democrats With Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Biden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Friday to a host of prominent Americans, including several of his most important political allies like former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina.

With an election six months away, Mr. Biden assembled a list of 19 people to honor that was heavy with major Democratic Party figures and others he has worked with over the years, including former Vice President Al Gore and former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York. The one well-known Republican to be honored is former Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina.

“Today, we have another extraordinary honor,” Mr. Biden said at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, noting that he was bestowing the nation’s highest civilian honor on “19 incredible people whose relentless curiosity, inventiveness, ingenuity and hope kept faith in a better tomorrow.”

The medal was established in its current form by President John F. Kennedy and meant to honor “any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution” to national security, world peace or “cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” as the original executive order put it.

Aside from political recipients, the president selected a handful of well-known figures from the worlds of civil rights, sports, entertainment and space exploration.

Among the honorees were Clarence B. Jones, a civil rights activist who helped draft the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington in 1963; Opal Lee, an educator who in 2016, at age 89, walked from her home in Texas to Washington to lobby to make Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday marking the end of slavery; and Judy Shepard, who helped found the Matthew Shepard Foundation to combat anti-gay hate crimes after her son was brutally murdered in 1998.

Others recognized on Friday included the Rev. Gregory J. Boyle, a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries, the gang-intervention and rehabilitation program active in Los Angeles; and Teresa Romero, the president of the United Farm Workers and the first Latina to lead a national union.

The cultural and athletic figures honored were Michelle Yeoh, the first Asian to win the Academy Award for best actress; Katie Ledecky, the seven-time Olympic gold medal winner and most decorated female swimmer in history; and Phil Donahue, one of the pioneers of daytime talk shows.

Mr. Biden also selected a couple of trailblazing figures from the space field: the astronaut Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to leave the planet and second female director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center; and the astronomer Jane Rigby, the chief scientist of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Three awardees received the medal posthumously: Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader whose murder in 1963 shocked the nation and galvanized the movement to end racial discrimination; Jim Thorpe, the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal; and former Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, a longtime colleague of Mr. Biden’s in Congress.

The ceremony on Friday was a chance for Mr. Biden to thank certain allies who helped him at key moments. Ms. Pelosi, who still represents California in the House after stepping down as speaker, was critical to passing some of the most important legislation of the Biden presidency, including programs to rebuild infrastructure, combat climate change, lower prescription drug costs and raise corporate taxes.

Mr. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, served with Mr. Biden in the Senate for years and as secretary of state during President Barack Obama’s administration when Mr. Biden was vice president. Until recently, Mr. Kerry served as Mr. Biden’s special envoy for climate.

Mr. Clyburn, a longtime member of the House Democratic leadership, may have been more important than any other single ally in propelling Mr. Biden to the White House with his well-timed endorsement in the 2020 Democratic primaries that turned around the campaign.

Among those Mr. Biden beat that year for the nomination was Mr. Bloomberg, the billionaire former three-term mayor, who endorsed Mr. Biden when he dropped out and has been an ally on shared priorities like climate change.

Like Mr. Biden, Mr. Gore is a former senator who served as vice president for eight years. Since leaving office, he has shared a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change. But he also served as a reminder of the tradition of conceding elections after a loss, a pointed jab at former President Donald J. Trump, who just this week again refused to commit to accepting the results of this year’s election if he loses.

Mr. Gore won the national popular vote in 2000 but lost a razor-thin contest in Florida by just 537 votes to give the Electoral College edge to George W. Bush, a Republican. After a Supreme Court ruling ended the recount in Florida, Mr. Gore made a gracious concession to Mr. Bush — and did not try to use his role as vice president to overturn the results as Mr. Trump tried to pressure his own vice president, Mike Pence, to do in 2020.

Mr. Biden’s one nod across the aisle on the medal list was Ms. Dole, who served as secretary of transportation for President Ronald Reagan, secretary of labor for President George H.W. Bush and president of the American Red Cross before winning election to the Senate from North Carolina in 2002.

Her own campaign for the presidency started with much promise but flamed out before the Republican primaries began in 2000. Her husband, former Senator Robert J. Dole of Kansas, was the party’s 1996 presidential nominee, losing the general election to Bill Clinton, a Democrat. Mr. Dole was the only living Republican presidential nominee to support Mr. Trump for president and died at 98 in 2021.

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation released a statement on Friday thanking Mr. Biden for the honor: “The foundation deeply appreciates President Biden’s decision to bestow this award upon Senator Dole, celebrating her lifetime of leadership and service and rightly placing her among those extraordinary Americans who have changed the course of history.”

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