Calling him “the best vice president America has ever had,” President Barack Obama awarded Joe Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom Thursday in a surprise tribute to his friend and close adviser for the last eight years.

The medal is the highest civilian honor in the United States, and Biden appeared stunned and wiped away tears.

When he took the podium, he started by jokingly telling his chief of staff “you’re fired,” for not hinting at the surprise.

“This honor is not only well beyond what I deserve, but it’s a reflection of the extent and generosity of your spirit,” Biden said.

“I don’t deserve this. But I know it came from the president’s heart,” he said. “There is a Talmudic saying that says what comes from the heart enters the heart. Mr. President, you have crept into our heart, you and your whole family.”

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Obama awarded the medal “with distinction,” an extra level of veneration, for the first time in his presidency. The previous three presidents awarded the higher level of the award to only one person each: John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, and Gen. Colin Powell, Obama said.

He called Biden “an extraordinary man, with an extraordinary career in public service.”

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