President Obama surprised Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Thursday by bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on him, calling Mr. Biden “my brother” in a tearful goodbye in the East Room of the White House.
Having called Mr. Biden and his wife, Jill, to the White House for a private farewell, the president instead brought him into a room filled with his friends, family and colleagues to present him with the honor, the nation’s highest.
For the first time, President Obama awarded the medal with distinction, an added level of veneration that previous presidents had reserved for recipients like Pope John Paul II and Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state.
Moments later, as the president called up a military aide to read the proclamation, Mr. Biden appeared to break down, turning his back to the audience to compose himself. After Obama hung the medal around his neck, the vice president cried openly.
The citation with the medal noted Mr. Biden’s “charm, candor, unabashed optimism and deep and abiding patriotism,” as well as his “strength and grace to overcome great personal adversity.” It called him one of the most “consequential vice presidents in American history.”
Addressing President Obama, who stood to his side, Mr. Biden said that he had never met anyone who had “the integrity and the decency and the sense of other people’s needs like you do.” The ceremony was an emotional conclusion to an improbable partnership that began in 2008 when Obama asked his former presidential rival to be his running mate. The two men became close during eight years in the White House.
While paying tribute to Biden during the ceremony, Obama said, “To know Joe Biden is to know love without pretense, service without self regard and to live life fully. As one of his longtime colleagues in the Senate said — who happened to be a Republican — if you can’t admire Joe Biden, you have a problem.”
President Obama spoke emotionally about the relationship between his own family and the extended Biden clan, many of whom had gathered for the ceremony. “My family is so proud to call ourselves honorary Bidens,” he said. Mr. Biden sought to return the compliment. He noted that the Constitution did not grant the vice president any inherent powers — “for good reason,” he said. But he said that Obama had made good on a pledge to make sure that Mr. Biden had a job that mattered.
“You have more than kept your commitment to me by saying you wanted me to help govern,” Mr. Biden said, adding that he hoped the history books would record that he was an asterisk in Obama’s historic presidency.
“I can say I was part of a journey of a remarkable man who did remarkable things for this country,” Mr. Biden said.
Click here to read the full transcript of the event.
Background image: President Barack Obama surprises Vice President Joe Biden with a special send-off. In a White House ceremony honoring his Vice President, President Obama surprised an emotional Joe Biden by presenting him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on January 12, 2017. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/ Reuters)