WASHINGTON >> President Barack Obama surprised Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday by bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on him, calling Biden “my brother” in a tearful goodbye at the White House.
Having called Biden and his wife, Jill, to the White House for a private farewell, the president instead brought him into a room filled with his friends, family and colleagues to present him with the honor, the nation’s highest.
For the first time, Obama awarded the medal with distinction, an added level of veneration that previous presidents had reserved for recipients like Pope John Paul II and Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state.
“To know Joe Biden is to know love without pretense, service without self-regard, and to live life fully,” Obama said during the televised ceremony, as Biden wiped tears from his eyes and dabbed at his nose with a handkerchief.
Moments later, as the president called up a military aide to read the proclamation, Biden appeared to break down, turning his back to the audience to compose himself. After Obama hung the medal around his neck, the vice president cried openly.
“Ricchetti, you’re fired,” Biden joked to his chief of staff, Steve Ricchetti. “I had no inkling.”
Addressing Obama, who stood to his side, 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 Obama asked his former presidential rival to be his running mate. The two men became close during eight years in the White House.
“Mr. President, you got right the part about my leaning on Jill,” Biden said, referring to the president’s remarks about the couple’s love. “But I’ve also leaned on you and a lot of people in this room.”
It was not always clear that the odd-couple pairing would work, either politically or personally. Obama brought a cool and disciplined approach to politics, while his vice president was the hotheaded, passionate one.
Gaffes by Biden during the early part of the Obama administration annoyed the president and his aides. And the relationship between the two men was strained when Biden endorsed same-sex marriage in 2012, forcing the president’s hand on the issue.
But their bond strengthened through the difficult re-election campaign and a second term in which they confronted several mass killings. And Biden’s personal tragedy — the loss of his son Beau to cancer — brought them even closer together.
Last year, Biden seriously considered another run for president. But he concluded that his son’s death had left him emotionally unable to mount an effective campaign.
The citation with the medal noted Biden’s “charm, candor, unabashed optimism and deep and abiding patriotism,” as well as his “strength and grace to overcome great personal adversity.” It called him one of the most “consequential vice presidents in American history.”
Obama spoke emotionally about the relationship between his own family and the extended Biden clan, many of whom had gathered for the ceremony. “My family is so proud to call ourselves honorary Bidens,” he said.
Biden sought to return the compliment. He noted that the Constitution did not grant the vice president any inherent powers — “for good reason,” he said. But he said Obama had made good on a pledge to make sure that Biden had a job that mattered.
“You have more than kept your commitment to me by saying you wanted me to help govern,” Biden said, adding that he hoped the history books would record that he was an asterisk in Obama’s historic presidency.
“I can say I was part of a journey of a remarkable man who did remarkable things for this country,” Biden said.