President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to an emotional Vice President Biden during a surprise event Thursday at the White House.
Biden turned around and burst into tears as Obama made the announcement in front of White House staff in the State Dining Room.
The president said he was bestowing the nation’s highest civilian honor on his vice president “for your faith in your fellow Americans, for your love of country and for you lifetime of service that will endure through the generations.”
The award caught Biden and much of the world off guard, as the event has been billed just hours before as a final tribute for the vice president. The medal had not been mentioned.
With tears still in his eyes, Biden took the lectern and declared he “had no inkling” he was receiving the award.
He lavished praise on Obama, saying that no one has the same “integrity, and decency, and sense of other people’s needs” as the president.
“This honor is not only well beyond what I deserve, but it is a reflection of the extent and generosity of your spirit,” Biden said to Obama. “I don’t deserve this, but I know it came from the president’s heart.”
The award showed the deep, personal bond the two leaders formed during their eight years together in the White House.
Obama said he was giving the medal to Biden “with distinction,” an honor given only to three other individuals: Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Colin Powell.
Biden is the third vice president to receive the medal, which was created by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The others are Nelson Rockefeller and Hubert Humphrey, who received his posthumously.
The award capped off a farewell event for Biden, which combined heartfelt tribute with good-natured ribbing.
Speaking before the vice president, Obama went on at length detailing Biden’s accomplishments while remembering some of his well-known off-color moments.
“This also gives the internet one last chance to talk about our bromance,” Obama joked. “This has been quite a ride.”
Obama called Biden “the best vice president America has ever had,” in large part because of his ability to give him unvarnished advice about some of the biggest decisions he’s had to make.
He also spoke about Biden’s love of family, including his late son Beau, who died in 2015 of cancer.
Obama predicted Biden’s post-government career, which includes his cancer moonshot effort, would continue to shape the country.
“He has been a lion of American history,” the president said. “The best part is, he’s nowhere close to finished.”
The president also touched on the lighter moments of their time in office.
Obama revealed Biden’s wife, Jill, once hid in an overhead compartment on Air Force Two to scare her senior staff.
“That’s true,” Biden could be seen mouthing in the background.
In describing Biden’s legacy, Obama invoked his infamous turn of phrase at the 2010 signing ceremony for the Affordable Care Act.
“It is, as Joe once said, a big,” Obama said, pausing. “Deal.”
This story was updated at 4:57 p.m.