WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (UPI) — President Barack Obama decided to make the recipient of his final Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, a total surprise Thursday — so secret, in fact, that not even the winner knew it was coming.
And the award goes to — Vice President Joe Biden.
The outgoing president decorated Biden with the star-shaped medal and blue ribbon during a White House ceremony in his honor Thursday afternoon. The event paid tribute to the former Delaware senator, who has been a public servant since his election to the upper chamber in 1973.
Near the end, Obama revealed what he had up his sleeve.
“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,” the president said, setting up the traditional scenario. “For the final time as president, I am pleased to award our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
When he heard those words, an already emotional Biden was stunned — visibly gasping, and having to turn around to compose himself. Several audible gasps were heard from onlookers in the room before applause broke out.
Obama has given dozens of the medals to outstanding citizens in his eight years in office, but Biden’s is one of a kind.
“For the first and only time in my presidency, I will bestow this medal with an additional level of veneration,” he said.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom With Distinction has only been given to three other people in the past three White House administrations — to former President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and former Gen. Colin Powell.
The room erupted with laughter moments later when Biden jokingly told his chief of staff that he was fired, for failing to inform him of the surprise.
In his career, Biden served as a senator for 36 years and was chair of the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. In honoring him with the award, Obama called Biden “the best vice president America has ever had.”
It’s not immediately clear what Biden, 74, might do after Obama’s administration leaves next week. He has indicated that it’s possible he could seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, after he chose not to run last year. Part of his decision not to challenge Hillary Clinton may have been the death of his son, Beau, from brain cancer in May 2015.
“Mr. President, I’m indebted to you, I’m indebted to your friendship,” he added.
“You know as long as there’s breath in me I’ll be there for you, my whole family will be and I know — I know it is reciprocal.”