Remarks by the President at Presentation of the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of the Arts
5:50 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, everybody. Please have a seat. (Applause.) I'm sorry I'm a little late. (Laughter.) I had this thing I had to do. (Laughter.) But I understand that people have been drinking and -- (laughter) -- and eating the big shrimp around here. And I have to say that the wait will have been worth it, because we are honoring an extraordinary group of individuals.
Before I begin I just want to make a few acknowledgements. First of all, somebody who was busy with me today, and is busy every day on behalf of the American people -- we have Speaker Nancy Pelosi who is here. (Applause.)
We have somebody who has been a great entrepreneur of the arts who we're glad accepted the position of chairman of the NEA, Mr. Rocco Landesman, who is here. Please give him a big round of applause. (Applause.) Another individual who had an extraordinarily distinguished career in Congress and has been a consistent supporter of the arts and the humanities, and is somebody who doesn’t just talk bipartisan, but has always walked the bipartisan walk -- we're grateful to have him here, Mr. Jim Leach, chairman of the NEH. (Applause.) Where’s Jim? There he is.
Two great friends of mine and the co-chairs of the President’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities -- Ms. Margo Lion and Mr. George Stevens -- and all the commission members who are here, will you please stand and let us give you a round of applause. (Applause.)
And two recipients who were not able to be here today, but I want to make mention of them because obviously their careers have helped to mark the landscape of American culture for decades -- Mr. Bob Dylan and Clint Eastwood, who are both recipients but could not make it today. So I wanted to make sure that we acknowledge them.
Now, all of us are here to share a recognition of the importance of the arts and the humanities -– pursuits and professions that enrich the mind, and nourish the soul, and strengthen the character of this country. They bring us joy. They bring us understanding and insight. They bring us comfort in good times and, perhaps especially, in difficult times in our own lives and in the life of our nation.
This recognition is what led to the founding of the Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Each of these institutions plays a vital role in preserving and enhancing America’s cultural legacy. They promote works of the past. They cultivate the talent of the future. They deserve our thanks.
It is one of the special privileges of this office that I have an opportunity, from time to time, to take part in award ceremonies like this; to honor individuals and institutions that are important to me, personally, and important to all of our citizens; to celebrate triumphs of the arts and the humanities that bring us closer to an understanding of what makes us American, but also what makes us human.
And one of the most extraordinary features of America’s cultural inheritance is its dynamism and its diversity. It’s a culture that produced Mark Twain and Toni Morrison, John Philip Sousa and Louis Armstrong, Marian Anderson and Alvin Ailey. It’s a culture in which all of us can find a place, in which all of us can take great pride.
The men and women that we honor today are a part of this unique American tradition. In a cultural moment that too often prizes the sensational over the enduring, the trivial over the profound, it’s worth recalling the contributions of the honorees in this room –- contributions that at once reflect and rise above the particular moments in which they’re made.
With us are actors and authors, singers and sculptors, conductors, curators, collectors, civic leaders, champions of the arts and the humanities. Each has taken a different path to get here. Each has made the most of different gifts. But all of them have reached the peaks of cultural achievement. And all of them are a testament to the breadth and depth of the human spirit.
It’s through contributions like theirs, as much as anything else, that a nation’s legacy is forged. Ancient Greece and Rome are remembered for the rulers who conquered the known world, but also for the Odyssey and the Iliad, for a forum and a coliseum. Europe –- from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment -– is remembered for wars of religion and the stirrings of revolution, but also for the Sistine Chapel and the encyclopedia. The China that invented gunpowder and paper is also known for its poetry.
That is the legacy of these civilizations. That’s how they are remembered. And we will be remembered, I hope, for what we do in our time to deliver progress for our people and to advance the dreams of all people. But I hope we will be remembered for something else, as well. I hope we will be remembered for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for the School of American Ballet, for all that you, the honorees here today, have done to enrich and enhance America’s legacy.
And that legacy will be forged by all of us doing our part. By those of us here in Washington doing what needs to be done to improve the lives of people who are -- we were elected to serve. By brave men and women fighting under our flag. By citizens and neighborhood organizations and places of worship that are giving back to the communities. And by scientists that are advancing what we know about the workings of the world and the universe. But also by Americans like you -– creators, imaginers, entertainers -– helping each of us understand the human experience, and helping all of us recognize that common humanity.
That task is especially important I think right now. It’s easy in times like these, with all the talk about what makes us different and what divides us, what keeps us apart, to lose sight of what holds us together. To forget that no matter what our differences, some things speak to all of us.
It doesn’t matter whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, all of us are profoundly moved by our reflection in black granite. No matter what the color of our skin or what beliefs we hold, all of us can draw lessons from the works of history. No matter what community we call our own, all of us can be moved by a symphony, or an aria; all of us can be moved by a soprano’s voice; all of us can be moved by a film’s score. The arts, the humanities, they appeal to a certain yearning that's shared by all of us -- a yearning for truth and for beauty, for connection and the simple pleasure of a good story.
More than 200 years and 25 -- 225 years ago, on February 18, 1784, George Washington sat down at his home in Mount Vernon to write a letter. It was just a month after Congress officially put an end to the war with the British Empire. And it was still years before the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia -- years before this general ended up becoming President. Years before 13 newly independent colonies became one nation, indivisible under God.
But the letter Washington sat down to write that day was not about the recent triumph over the British. It was not about what shape a young America might take. Instead, it was a letter to a bookseller. Before requesting a few volumes, Washington expressed a belief –- and I quote –- “to encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.”
A duty of every good citizen. So speaks the father of our country. Even then, amid all the concerns of those heady and dangerous days, Washington took time to reflect on the infinite value of what were then called “the elegant arts.” Even then, he foresaw the essential role that the arts and the humanities would play in the formation of our country’s character. And if Washington were with us today, I think he would agree that all of you have fulfilled your duties; that all of you are good citizens; that all of you have enriched the legacy of the United States of America.
So with that, I now ask the honorees to come up, one by one, as their citations are read.
(The citations are read.)
MILITARY AIDE: The 2009 National Humanities Medal to Elie Wiesel. (Applause.) The 2009 national Humanities Medal to Elie Wiesel, for his unwavering commitment to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and its victims. He has fostered compassion and understanding through his writing, his leadership, and his relentless advocacy for human rights. (Applause.)
The 2009 National Medal of Arts recipients.
Milton Glaser. (Applause.) The 2009 National Medal of Arts to Milton Glaser, for a lifetime devoted to improving the way people communicate through innovation in graphic design, and for memorable visual artifacts that challenge contemporary artists and delight all Americans. (Applause.)
Maya Lin. (Applause.) The 2009 National Medal of Arts to Maya Lin, for her profound work as an architect, artist, and environmentalist. Her vision for the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial emblemizes her deep understanding of the ways in which we respond to the world around us. (Applause.)
Rita Moreno. (Applause.) The 2009 National Medal of Arts to Rita Moreno, for her remarkable achievements on stage and screen. Her performances have served as touchstones to millions of Americans for whom she reflects their own passions, troubles, and joys. (Applause.)
Jessye Norman. (Applause.) The 2009 National Medal of Arts to Jessye Norman, for her contributions to American music as a dramatic soprano, broadening contemporary operatic repertoire and distinguishing herself with the warmth, intensity, and range of her voice. (Applause.)
Accepting for the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, David Stahl. (Applause.) The 2009 National Medal of Arts to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, for preparing young musicians to become great cultural contributors. As a model of music education, America’s oldest continuously operating conservatory proves that exceptional training enriches artists, our communities, and our nation. (Applause.)
Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. (Applause.) The 2009 National Medal of Arts to Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr., for cultivating Charleston’s historic and cultural resources to enhance public spaces, and for revitalizing urban centers throughout our nation as founder of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design. (Applause.)
Accepting for the School of American Ballet, Peter Martins. (Applause.) The 2009 National Medal of Arts to the School of American Ballet, for shaping the history of 20th century dance by training young dancers under the guidance of the world’s ballet masters to forge a dynamic classical ballet tradition in the United States. (Applause.)
Frank Stella. (Applause.) The 2009 National Medal of Arts to Frank Stella, for his accomplishments as one of the world’s most innovative painters and sculptors. His sophisticated visual experiments -- often transcending boundaries between painting, printmaking, and sculpture -- are modern masterpieces. (Applause.)
Michael Tilson Thomas. (Applause.) The 2009 National Medal of Arts to Michael Tilson Thomas, for his dedication to elevating American orchestral playing as a renowned conductor, and for his commitment to engaging new artists and audiences in the exciting world of contemporary music. (Applause.)
John Williams. (Applause.) The 2009 National Medal of Arts to John Williams, for his achievements in symphonic music for motion pictures. As a preeminent composer and conductor, his scores have defined and inspired modern movie-going for decades. (Applause.)
The 2009 National Humanities Medal recipients.
Robert A. Caro. (Applause.) The 2009 National Humanities Medal to Robert A. Caro, for capturing the subtle machinations of political influence in America. His biographies of Robert Moses and President Johnson have shown how individuals accumulate and exercise power in local and national settings. (Applause.)
Annette Gordon-Reed. (Applause.) The 2009 National Humanities Medal to Annette Gordon-Reed, for important and innovative research about an American family, the Hemings of Monticello. Her narrative story about Sally Hemings and her relatives, Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, brings to light a previously unrecognized chapter in the American story. (Applause.)
David Levering Lewis. (Applause.) The 2009 National Humanities Medal to David Levering Lewis, for his insightful examinations of W.E.B. DuBois, the Dreyfus Affair, and early Islamic-Christian relations in Europe, which have enriched our understanding of the figures and forces that shaped world history. (Applause.)
William H. McNeill. (Applause.) The 2009 National Humanities Medal to William H. McNeill, for his pedagogy at the University of Chicago and as an author of more than 20 books, including The Rise of the West, which traces civilizations through 5,000 years of recorded history. (Applause.)
Philippe de Montebello. (Applause.) The 2009 National Humanities Medal to Philippe de Montebello, for his vision in bringing great art to an international public and his leadership in revitalizing the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and for fostering arts appreciation among people of all ages. (Applause.)
Accepting for Albert H. Small, Robert Perry. (Applause.) The 2009 National Humanities Medal to Albert H. Small, for his devotion to sharing early American manuscripts with our nation’s cultural and educational institutions, as a philanthropist and collector. His generosity has helped educate countless Americans about those who founded our country. (Applause.)
Theodore C. Sorensen. (Applause.) The 2009 National Humanities Medal to Theodore C. Sorensen, for advancing our understanding of modern American politics. As a speechwriter and advisor to President Kennedy, he helped craft messages and policies, and later gave us a window into the people and events that made history. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Ladies and gentlemen, please give a big round of applause to all the honorees. (Applause.)
Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes the formal program, but there are some drinks and big shrimp left. (Laughter.) So we expect you to enjoy the hospitality of the White House. And Michelle and I just want to personally again say what an honor it has been for us to be here at this ceremony. Each and every one of these individuals in some way has touched my life.
I think about Robert Caro and reading The Power Broker back when I was 22 years old -- (laughter) -- and just being mesmerized, and I'm sure it helped to shape how I think about politics.
I think about Maya Lin and the first time I had a chance to see that extraordinary monument to the courage of our young men and women in uniform. I think about the first time I heard Jessye Norman’s voice, or saw Rita in West Side Story. And my great friend Joe Riley -- the extraordinary work that he’s done in Charleston. And Ted Sorensen, who used up all the good lines for every President remaining. (Laughter.) And Frank Stella, who obviously is a legend.
I don't want to mention everybody because each and every one of you in some way have touched our lives. So a personal thanks from Michelle and myself, and I hope all of you have a wonderful evening and continue to enrich the lives of our citizens. It is extraordinarily important. And we will continue to be as big a booster as possible from this office.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
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