Obama awards Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Tears pooled in eyes across Delaware Thursday as President Barack Obama bestowed the nation's highest civilian honor on Vice President Joe Biden, calling his running mate and presidential understudy "the best vice president America has ever had."
"This son of Scranton, Claymont and Wilmington has become one of the most consequential vice presidents in American history," a White House aide recited as a choked-up Biden received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Only two other vice presidents have received the honor. President Gerald Ford awarded it to his vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, in 1977, and President Jimmy Carter awarded it to Lyndon Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, in 1980.
Biden's medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction, is an even rarer gift. That additional designation has been bestowed to only three others: Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The surprise State Room ceremony — Biden had assumed it was going to be a send-off with the Obamas and senior staff — was alternately humorous and tender. When presented with the medal, emblazoned with a white star surrounded by gold bald eagles with outstretched wings, Biden turned his face from the audience to wipe away tears. He paused to kiss his wife and children before launching into a nearly 20-minute off-the-cuff speech in characteristic fashion, sprinkled with an Irish poem, a Talmudic saying and inside baseball. At times, Biden stared off into the distance or bowed his head in humility.
"I had no inkling," he said, joking that he would fire his chief of staff immediately. "I get a lot of credit I don't deserve."
On that last point, Uncle Joe is emphatically wrong, several Delawareans said after the speech.
"This honor is a fitting tribute to a lifetime of work that has improved quality of life, economic opportunity and security for millions of people across the country," Gov. Jack Markell said in an email. "We also know that while President Obama can elevate him with one of the nation’s highest honors ... for Delawareans, he’ll always be our Joe.”
"Of all the people on Earth that deserve it, he did," added Anne Turner-Fitzgerald, a longtime Biden campaign volunteer.
The 75-year-old from Newark praised Biden for his commitment to public service, but also for the example he set as a "family man."
"I was crying because I knew what it meant to him," she said.
Among the guests invited to Washington, D.C., was Biden's former press secretary Margaret Aitken of Wilmington. Aitken said she was told that Obama planned to honor Biden at an event, but was given no specifics.
"I am proud to be a Delawarean and honored to have worked for such a truly dedicated public servant," she said after the ceremony.
U.S. Sen. Chris Coons was similarly stunned. The Delaware lawmaker learned of the ceremony while attending a classified briefing on Russia's role in the presidential election.
Coons said he was struck by how "deeply genuine Obama's respect and affection is and how humbled Joe was by the honor."
As the nation braces for President-elect Donald Trump, "Joe Biden could be a very important calming and constructive voice for America's role in the world," Coons said.
Trump's Twitter feed was silent on Biden's honor as of Thursday night, but others bombarded social media with good wishes and nostalgia. Even those who admittedly disagreed with the Obama administration's policies said they couldn't help but be touched by the obvious "bromance" between POTUS and VPOTUS.
"This is somebody the people of Delaware sent to the Senate as quickly as they possibly could," Obama said during the ceremony.
"He has made me a better president and a better commander-in-chief. When everyone else has cleared out of the room, he's been unafraid to give it to me straight, even when we disagree."
"Especially when we disagreed."
Obama recited a list of Biden's accomplishments as vice president, leading the Middle Class Task Force, serving as the stimulus "sheriff" and manning "mission control" for the Cancer Moonshot. But he said that work doesn't capture the totality of Biden's often-parodied persona.
"I have not mentioned Amtrak yet. Or aviators. Literally," Obama said. The president also praised Jill Biden, "captain of the Vice Squad," as "the only second lady in our history to keep her regular day job."
"Everyone knows that I love her more than she loves me — with good reason." Biden joked during his speech.
He also expressed gratitude for his children, noting that his sons, Beau and Hunter, were the last ones standing at his vice presidential debates. Delaware's former attorney general, Beau Biden, died of brain cancer in 2015.
"Look at me, Dad. Look at me," Biden recalled his eldest, Beau, telling him after one debate. "Remember. Remember home base. Remember."
Biden reserved the bulk of his remarks Thursday for a man he calls his "brother," a man who turned him from presidential hopeful to the indispensable presidential adviser.
"There is no power in the vice presidency," Biden said. "There is no inherent power, nor should there be. But Mr. President, you have more than kept your commitment to me by saying to me you wanted me to help govern."
Beyond sharing a political ideology, Biden praised Obama for having "a heart as big as your head," without "an ounce of entitlement." He characterized his decision to join the Obama administration as the greatest honor of my life," adding that his granddaughters effortlessly bonded with Obama's daughters.
Biden's deference to Obama is consistent with a vice president's role of not upstaging a president, according to Joseph Pika, a retired University of Delaware professor who has studied the American presidency. But it also reflects the longtime Delaware senator's down-to-earth, self-deprecating nature.
Before concluding his remarks, Biden spoke of an enduring hope.
When that "asterisk in history" is attached to his name in reference to the Obama presidency, he said, "I can say I was part of the journey of a remarkable man who did remarkable things for this country."
Contact Margie Fishman at 302-324-2882, on Twitter @MargieTrende or email@example.com.
Delawareans react to Biden honor
"Everyone who knows Joe understands the love and passion he has for Delaware and for our country...Today is a proud day for all Delawareans." -Governor-elect John Carney
"For the past eight years, the nation has gotten to better appreciate what Delawareans have long known, that Joe Biden is a man of extraordinary integrity and selflessness, with a fierce passion for making the world a better place for as many people as possible." -Gov. Jack Markell
"Shows that he is probably the best VP in history." -Ted Kaufman, former U.S. senator from Delaware and Biden's former chief of staff
"I am proud to be a Delawarean and honored to have worked for such a truly dedicated public servant. Joe Biden is one of the finest people I have ever met and I am thrilled that he is is getting the recognition he deserves." -Margaret Aitken, former Biden press secretary
"It's not just about the vice presidency but it's about the 44 years of public service that he's given to the country...It's an enormously selfless record." -Joseph Pika, a retired University of Delaware professor who studies the American presidency
"There is no end of an era with Joe Biden. He will continue to work for the better good of everybody." -Anne Turner-Fitzgerald, former Biden campaign volunteer
What is the Presidential Medal of Freedom? (Source: The White House)
Originally established as the Medal of Freedom by President Harry S. Truman by Executive Order 9586 of July 6, 1945, the Medal was reestablished as the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. It is the highest civil award of our government. The Medal is awarded by the President of the United States to those persons whom he deems to have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.The Medal may be awarded to citizens of other nations and may be awarded posthumously. Executive Order 11085 also allows for a rarely-used, higher grade of the Medal, known as the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction. President George W. Bush, President Bill Clinton, and President George H.W. Bush each awarded this grade of the Medal once during their time in office.