WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/CBS News/AP) — President Barack Obama surprised Vice President Joe Biden Thursday, awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction.
Standing at the president’s side as he has for eight years, Biden thought he was attending a toast and send off senior White House staff. It turned out to be a tear-filled surprise that left him stunned.
Obama paid tribute to Biden in a speech and calling him “the best vice president America has ever had.”
“To know Joe Biden is to know love without pretense, service without self-regard and to live life fully,” Mr. Obama said, noting he was bestowing the award on him “for your faith in fellow Americans, for your love of country and for your lifetime of service that will endure through the generations.”
Biden, who was visibly emotional during the speech and wiped back tears as he accepted the award, praised Mr. Obama as a man of “integrity” and “decency.” More than a few viewers were in tears too.
“I can say I was part of the journey of a remarkable man who did remarkable things for this country,” he said.
Only the clicking of cameras could be heard as the Medal of Freedom was placed around Biden’s neck, followed by a pat on the shoulders and a warm embrace.
“I don’t deserve this, but I know it came from the President’s heart,” Biden said.
Biden credited his record as vice president with Mr. Obama’s willingness to trust him with important responsibilities, which is rare for presidents to do to the extent that Mr. Obama did.
“Every single thing you’ve asked me to do, Mr. President, you have trusted me to do,” he said. “And that is a remarkable thing.”
Biden said he had “no inkling” this would happen, adding that he thought the afternoon would be spent with “a couple senior staff to toast one another and say what an incredible journey it’s been.”
Biden, Obama said, is “a lion of American history,” referring to him as a “brother.”
Obama spoke about Biden’s ability to connect with anyone he meets, calling him “a resilient and loyal humble servant, a patriot and most of all a family man.”
The speech was lighthearted, with Obama referencing Biden’s famous aviators, his love of Amtrak and his overuse of the word “literally.”
Obama quipped that Biden’s legacy in office is, “As Joe once said, a big deal” — a reference to the time in 2010 when Biden whispered to Obama that the passage of the Affordable Care Act was a “big f***ing deal.”
“Folks don’t just feel like they know Joe the politician,” he said. They feel like they know the person.”
Biden’s legacy is one that many appreciate.
“His legacy is the voice of the common man,” political expert David Birdsell told CBS2’s Jessica Layton. “His defining moments were really moments of being approachable; being a genuine person.”
The Medal of Freedom with Distinction is level of veneration also given to Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, and Gen. Colin Powell.