Obama surprises Biden with Medal of Freedom

Mr Obama putting the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction on Mr Biden in the White House on Thursday.
Mr Obama putting the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction on Mr Biden in the White House on Thursday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

WASHINGTON • United States President Barack Obama surprised Vice-President Joe Biden by bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on him, calling Mr Biden "my brother" in a tearful goodbye at the White House.

Having called Mr Biden and his wife, Jill, to the White House for a private farewell, the President instead took him into a room filled with his friends, family and colleagues to present him with the nation's highest honour.

For the first time in Mr Obama's presidency, the medal was awarded "with Distinction", an added level of veneration that previous presidents had reserved for recipients such as Pope John Paul II and former secretary of state Colin Powell.

"To know Joe Biden is to know love without pretence, service without self-regard, and to live life fully," Mr Obama said during the ceremony on Thursday, as Mr Biden wiped tears from his eyes.

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 Mr Obama hung the medal around his neck, the Vice-President cried openly.

"Ricchetti, you're fired," Mr Biden joked to his chief of staff Steve Ricchetti. "I had no inkling."

HIGH PRAISE

To know Joe Biden is to know love without pretence, service without self-regard, and to live life fully.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, on Mr Biden, who was his Vice-President for two terms.

Addressing Mr Obama, 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 Mr Obama asked his former presidential rival to be his running mate.

"Mr President, you got right the part about my leaning on Jill," Mr Biden said, referring to the President's remarks about the couple's love. "But I have also leaned on you and a lot of people in this room."

The two men became close during eight years in the White House, with their bond strengthened through the difficult 2012 re-election campaign, a second term in which they confronted several mass killings and Mr Biden's personal tragedy of losing his son Beau to cancer.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2017, with the headline 'Obama surprises Biden with Medal of Freedom'. Print Edition | Subscribe