The event was billed as a simple ceremony for President Barack Obama to honor Vice President Joe Biden. But it was more than that: Obama surprised everyone — most notably Biden himself — by awarding the Vice President the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was a poignant and beautiful moment, perfectly capturing the deep bond of brotherhood between the two men.
On Thursday afternoon, in what was billed as a brief, informal ceremony to honor Vice President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama once again showed the kindness and warmth that have remained hallmarks of his character throughout his time in office.
During extended remarks, in which he made sure to include humorous references to their "bromance," Biden's friendship with Lady Gaga, and the Vice President's signature use of his favorite word, "literally," Obama gave a moving biography of the man who has been by his side, professionally and personally, for over eight years.
Obama wanted to "pay tribute to somebody who's not only been by my side for the duration of this amazing journey, but somebody who has devoted his entire professional life to service to this country — the best Vice President America's ever had, Mr. Joe Biden."
Obama went on to recount Biden's long and notable career in politics, from his early days in Delaware, to his most recent efforts in the White House, including working to pass the Violence Against Women Act, leading the cancer "moonshot," striving for stronger gun control measures, and ensuring the endurance of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And Obama credited Biden's "candid, honest counsel" with making him a better president and commander-in-chief.
Obama then spoke movingly of Biden, the person he knows personally, who has been shaped by wisdom from the nuns back in grade school, from colleagues in the political sphere, and especially from his parents, Catherine and Joseph, Sr.
That's where he got those broad shoulders. That's where he got that Biden heart. And through his life, through trial after trial, he has never once forgotten the values and the moral fiber that made him who he is. That's what steels his faith in God, and in America, and in his friends, and in all of us. When Joe talks to autoworkers whose livelihoods he helped save, we hear the son of a man who once knew the pain of having to tell his kids that he had lost his job. When Joe talks about hope and opportunity for our children, we hear the father who rode the rails home every night, so he could be there to tuck his kids into bed. When Joe sticks up for the little guy, we hear the young boy who used to stand in front of the mirror reciting Yeats or Emerson, studying the muscles in his face, determined to vanquish a debilitating stutter. When Joe talks to Gold Star families who've lost a hero, we hear a kindred spirit, another father of an American Veteran, somebody whose faith has been tested and who has been forced to wander through the darkness himself, and who knows who to lean on to find the light. So that's Joe Biden: A resilient and loyal and humble servant, and a patriot. But most of all, a family man.
Obama then turned to honoring Jill Biden, a Second Lady who kept her day job as a teacher, and who helped the administration strengthen community colleges and worked with Michelle Obama on behalf of military families. And he spoke of the Biden kids and grandkids, including the late Beau Biden, "who is watching over us those broad shoulders and might heart himself, a man who left a beautiful legacy and inspired an entire nation."
He quoted William Butler Yeats — "because I had to quote an Irish poet" — "Think where man's glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends."
"To know Joe Biden," Obama declared, "is to know love without pretense, service without self-regard, and to live life fully."
And then, in an unannounced move, and to the visible and emotional surprise of Biden, Obama awarded the Vice President with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — with distinction, an additional level of veneration which Obama has not conferred on anyone else in his presidency.
Joe, for your faith in your fellow Americans, for your love of country, and for your lifetime of service that will endure through the generations, I'd like to ask the military aide to join us on stage. For the final time as President, I am pleased to award our nation's highest civilian honor: The Presidential Medal of Freedom. And for the first and only time in my presidency, I will bestow this medal with an additional level of veneration, an honor my three most recent successors reserved for only three others: Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, and General Colin Powell. Ladies and gentleman, I am proud to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with distinction, to my brother, Joseph Robinette Biden, Junior.
Biden then went to the podium himself, after embracing his family and wiping away tears. He noted to Obama, "Mr. President, you got it right, the part about my leaning on Jill. But I've also leaned on you and a lot of people in this room." He spoke in depth about how much he has relied on friends, family, and colleagues throughout his life.
After noting that the office of the vice presidency has no inherent power, he spoke of Obama's willingness to change that. "Mr. President, you have more than kept your commitment to me by saying that you wanted me to help govern. ...Every single thing you've asked me to do, Mr. President, you have trusted me to do, and that is a remarkable thing."
He continued to praise Obama, as a president and a person, as well as Michelle and the rest of their family, and spoke beautifully of the deep connections between their families.
And he spoke of his enduring confidence in Obama's abilities and character:
I have never, never, never, never, never, never once doubted, on these life-and-death decisions, I never once doubted that your judgment was flawed. Not once. Not once. We've disagreed and we've argued and we've raised our voices, and we've made a deal we would be completely open like brothers with one another. But Mr. President, I have watched you under intense fire. I will venture to say that no president in history has had as many novel crises land on his desk, in all of history. The Civil War was worse, World War II was worse, World War I, but Mr. President, almost every one of the crises you faced was a case of first instance. And I watched that prodigious mind, that heart as big as your head, I have watched you. I have watched how you have acted. When you see a woman or man under intense pressure, you get a measure, and you know that, Michelle, and your daughters know it as well. This is a remarkable man. And I just hope that the asterisk in history that is attached to my name when they talk about this presidency is that I can say I was part of the journey of a remarkable man who did remarkable things for this country.
And his closing remarks to Obama were equally poignant, charming, and 100 percent Joe Biden.
BIDEN: This honor is not only well beyond what I deserve, but it's a reflection of the extent and generosity of your spirit. I don't deserve this. but I know it came from the president's heart. There is a Talmudic saying that says, "What comes from the heart, enters the heart." Mr. President, you have creeped into our heart, you and your whole family, including mom, and you occupy it. It's an amazing thing that happened. I knew how smart you were. I knew how honorable you were. I knew how decent you were from the couple of years we worked in the senate. And I knew what you were capable of. But I never fully expected that you would occupy the Bidens' heart, from Hunter, Ashley, my sister, all of us. All of us. And Mr. President, I — I am indebted to you. I am indebted to your friendship. I am indebted to your family. And as — I'll tell you, I'll end on a humorous note: We're having lunch, and lunch is mostly, whatever is in either one of our minds, we talk about family an awful lot. And about six months in, the president looked at me, said, "You know, Joe, you know what's surprised me? How we've become such good friends!" I said, "Surprised you?" But that is candid Obama. And it's real. And Mr. President, you know as long as there is breath in me I'll be there for you, my whole family will be, and I know — I know it is reciprocal. And I want to thank you all so very, very, very much. All of you.
OBAMA: Joe Biden!
The moving and memorable event is a truly wonderful end note to the past eight years in which these two brilliant, compassionate, and admirable men led the country as best they could, and always as a team. The nation — and the world — is far better off for having know them as leaders. And it is clear they both feel the same about each other.
Thank you, Mr. Vice President. And thank you, Mr. President.