WASHINGTON – It was an offhand remark by President Joe Biden during Thursday’s Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House, but Khizr Khan took it to heart: The Gold Star dad plans to display his medal next to those earned in combat by his late son.
It was just one moment from a sometimes somber, sometimes jovial event when Biden honored 17 Americans, including the late Sen. John McCain and former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whom he called “the soul of our nation” from the worlds of art, athletics and public service.
“I see an extraordinary, extraordinary group of Americans up here on this stage that I have the honor of recognizing 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 honored by Biden with the medal, which was established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy and is considered the nation’s highest civilian honor. Among the more than 600 who have received 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-ever recipient at age 25, to Julieta Garcia, the first Hispanic woman to serve as a college president, from actor Denzel Washington to Alabama civil rights leader Fred Gray.
Biden spoke for about an hour, reciting the achievements of the honorees and reminiscing about some, before draping the medal – a white-trimmed blue ribbon holding a star-shaped medal surrounded by eagles – around the neck of each.
Biden called Giffords “one of the most courageous people I have ever known” and said she is the “embodiment of … a single, significant American trait: Never, ever give up.”
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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 and wounded 13, including her. She still struggles with the injuries she received in the shooting, but has since been a leading advocate for ending gun violence.
In a statement Thursday, Giffords called the award “the honor of a lifetime” and said that being recognized for her 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 blazing such a bright path forward,” her statement said. The audience included her husband, Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who is in his first term in the Senate.
McCain represented Arizona for six terms in the Senate, much of which overlapped Biden’s decades as a senator.
“John and I traveled the world together,” Biden said, recounting an often-repeated story of how they met while Biden was a freshman senator and McCain was a Navy liaison to his committee. “We became friends, we agreed on a lot more than we disagreed on.”
“We used to argue like hell on the Senate floor, but then we’d go and have lunch afterward,” he said. Biden said he “never stopped admiring” McCain, even when they ran against each other in 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 down during the Vietnam War. McCain died in 2018 and his medal was accepted by his widow, Cindy, whom Biden named an ambassador to the United Nations last year.
Khan was another great admirer of McCain, whom he considered a hero for him and his family. Khan has often told the story of how he shared McCain’s book, “Why Courage Matters,” with his son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan. It was one of the last things the two discussed before Humayun was killed in Iraq in 2004.
Despite being 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 founder of the Constitutional Literacy and National Unity Center and for his service on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom under Biden.
Khan said it was good to see many of McCain’s family at the White House event. And he also recalled the first time meeting Biden, when Biden was vice president.
“You’re my family,” Khan said of the 2016 meeting with Biden at the Vice President’s Residence in Washington. “If you ever feel burdened, reach out, I am here. That 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 that is being bestowed upon you,” Khan said of receiving the award. “Having family in the audience, they are also a part of it, they’re watching.”