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President Obama presents National Medals of the Arts and Humanities
From the White House Office of the Press Secretary
2016-09-22

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Remarks by President Obama, East Room, Sept. 22, 2016, 11:49 a.m. EDT

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you! ( Applause. ) Everybody, please have a seat, have a seat. ( Applause. ) Thank you so much. Everybody, please sit down. I can tell this is a rowdy crowd. Sit down. ( Laughter. )

Welcome to the White House, everybody. Throughout my time here, Michelle and I have tried to make it a priority to promote the arts and the humanities, especially for our young people, and it's because we believe that the arts and the humanities are, in many ways, reflective of our national soul. They're central to who we are as Americans — dreamers and storytellers, and innovators and visionaries. They're what helps us make sense of the past, the good and the bad. They're how we chart a course for the future while leaving something of ourselves for the next generation to learn from.

And we are here today to honor the very best of their fields, creators who give every piece of themselves to their craft. As Mel Brooks once said — ( laughter ) — to his writers on "Blazing Saddles," which is a great film: "Write anything you want, because we'll never be heard from again. We will all be arrested for this movie." ( Laughter and applause. )

Now, to be fair, Mel also said, a little more eloquently, that, "Every human being has hundreds of separate people living inside his skin. And the talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living within him." And that, I think, is what the arts and the humanities do — they lift up our identities, and make us see ourselves in each other. And today's honorees each possess a gift for this kind of creative empathy —- a gift that allows us to exchange a sense of what's most important and most profound in us, and to identify with our collective experience as Americans.

Now, along with Mel, we have an impressive crew with us here today. We've got Terry Gross, and a whole bunch of people who Terry Gross has interviewed. ( Laughter. ) We have Jane Chu, our Chair of the National Endowment of the Arts. ( Applause. ) Bro Adams, Chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities — ( applause ) — who also just has a cool name. ( Laughter. ) "Bro." ( Laughter. ) And we thank the members of Congress who are here for their strong support of the arts and the humanities.

But today, the focus is on our recipients. And today's recipients of the National Medals of the Arts and the Humanities are poets, musicians, artists, journalists, professors, historians, and at least one chef. Their paths and their mediums could hardly be more different, and that's what makes them great. They take their piece of this big, bold, diverse, energetic country, they reshape it, and then they share it with us. They open our experience to theirs, and for that, we honor them here today.

We honor poets like Louise GlÃ╝ck, whose probing poems capture the quiet drama of nature and the quiet emotions of everyday people. Throughout her life, fastidious, attentive readers have taught her that there are "ears that receive." As a professor, she strives to be a receiving ear for others, and she's inspired generations of young poets who are her students and readers alike. Once, when asked how she hoped the world would respond to her work, Louise said she wanted William Blake to come down from heaven and say, "You did a very good job." ( Laughter. ) Now, I don't think that's happened. ( Laughter. ) So you will have to settle for us today. ( Laughter. )

We honor musicians like Philip Glass. Like his own life as a Juilliard-trained New York City cab driver, Philip's work is full of contradictions that cross genres and cultures. When the music he made strayed from neat conventions, audiences didn't know always how to react. I understand that there have been some eggs thrown occasionally. But, as Philip said, "What seems strange or bizarre for any short period of time starts becoming familiar, and whatever artistic rewards or secrets it might have become revealed." Change isn't easy. But over his career of symphonies and operas and film scores, Philip Glass has proven that change can be beautiful.

We honor historians like Isabel Wilkerson, whose masterpiece "The Warmth of Other Suns" made the story of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North and West accessible to a new generation of Americans. To craft this remarkable book, Isabel spent 15 painstaking years trekking between archives and living rooms, interviewing more than 1,200 people who told her their families' stories of heartbreak and endurance and ultimately overcoming -— stories they often found too painful to share even with their own children. And through it all, she had to conquer the enormity of her task and prove wrong the doubts of others. And because she did, one of the most important chapters in our history is told in a book any young person can pick up and read.

And that's just a sampling of the extraordinary accomplishments that are represented here today. We honor Rudolfo Anaya. José Andrés. Mel Brooks. Ron Chernow. Sandra Cisneros. Philip Glass. Louise GlÃ╝ck. Berry Gordy. Santiago Jiménez. Moisés Kaufman. Ralph Lemon. Audra McDonald. Terry Gross. James McBride. Louis Menand. The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Elaine Pagels. The Prison University Project. Luis Valdez. Abraham Verghese. Jack Whitten. Isabel Wilkerson. We also honor Wynton Marsalis, who unfortunately could not make it here today, and Morgan Freeman, who undoubtedly is off playing a black President again. ( Laughter and applause. ) He never lets me have my moment. ( Laughter. ) He's always, like — ( laughter. )

All of today's honorees work in an age where the stories we tell and the technologies that we use to tell them are more diverse than ever before, and as diverse as the country that we love. "Every human being has hundreds of separate people living inside his skin." It echoes what Whitman once wrote about America — that we are large, containing multitudes. It's what's so great about this country — that there is no single, set way to contribute. All of us belong. All of us have a story to tell. Even when you think your story is too different, too strange, too unique, there's someone out there who's been waiting their whole life to hear you tell your story, because it's just like theirs. What a great gift all of you have given us.

So today, we thank you, today's honorees, who have had the bravery to go first and tell their story and make us feel a little bit better about ours.

So with that, let's give out some awards. Let's read the citations. ( Applause. )

MILITARY AIDE: National Medal of Arts Recipients:

Mel Brooks. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Medal of Arts to Mel Brooks for a lifetime of making the world laugh. As a writer, director, actor, and musician, he pioneered the art of musical comedy. And his hilarious, thought-provoking work on film and in theater have earned him the rare distinction of winning Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy awards. ( Applause. )

Sandra Cisneros. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Medal of Arts to Sandra Cisneros for enriching the American narrative. Through her novels, short stories, and poetry, she explores issues of race, class, and gender through the lives of ordinary people straddling multiple cultures. As an educator, she has deepened our understanding of American identity. ( Applause. )

Accepting on behalf of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, Preston Whiteway. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Medal of Arts to Eugene O'Neill Theater Center for its unwavering support of American theater. For over 50 years, the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center has nurtured award-winning playwrights, directors, and actors, enriched the craft of stage production, and delighted audiences with exceptional programs. ( Applause. )

Philip Glass. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Medal of Arts to Philip Glass for his groundbreaking contributions to music and composition. One of the most prolific, inventive, and influential artists of our time, he has expanded musical possibility with his operas, symphonies, film scores, and wide-ranging collaborations. ( Applause. )

Berry Gordy. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Medal of Arts to Berry Gordy for helping to create a trailblazing new sound in American music. As a record producer and songwriter, he helped build Motown, launching the music careers of countless legendary artists. His unique sound helped shape our nation's story. ( Applause. )

Santiago Jiménez, Jr. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Medal of Arts to Santiago Jiménez, Jr. for expanding the horizon of American music. He has helped spread traditional conjunto music, blending the sounds and cultures of south Texas and Mexico. His lively melodies performed on the two-button accordion have captivated audiences around the world. ( Applause. )

Moisés Kaufman. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Medal of Arts to Moisés Kaufman for his powerful contributions to American theater. His work sensitively probes questions of culture and sexuality. His award-winning Tectonic Theater Project continues to move audiences with its bold portrayals of contemporary social issues. ( Applause. )

Ralph Lemon. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Medal of Arts to Ralph Lemon for his contribution to dance and the visual arts. As a self-proclaimed conceptualist, he uses dance as a source of physical communication, and his complex works withstand examination from all angles, revealing intimate truths about human nature and offering broader insights into the American experience. ( Applause. )

Luis Valdez. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Medal of Arts to Luis Valdez for bringing Chicano culture to American drama. As a playwright, actor, writer, and director, he illuminates the human spirit in the face of social injustice through award-winning stage, film, and television productions. ( Applause. )

Jack Whitten. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Medal of Arts to Jack Whitten for remaking the American canvas. As an abstract artist, he uses "casting," acrylic paints, and compounds to create new surfaces and textures, challenging our perceptions of shape and color. His powerful works of art put the American story in a new light. ( Applause. )

( Citation for Audra McDonald is misplaced. )

THE PRESIDENT: I can make up the citation. ( Laughter. )

MILITARY AIDE: Let's do that. Let's do that, sir. ( Laughter and applause. )

THE PRESIDENT: You don't have it in there?

MILITARY AIDE: No, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: Here we go. ( Laughter. )

MILITARY AIDE: I'm sorry.

Audra McDonald. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Medal of Arts for Audra McDonald for lighting up Broadway as one of its brightest stars. An unforgettable performer, she has won six Tony awards. In musicals, concerts, operas, and the recording studio, her rich, soulful voice continues to take her audiences to new heights. ( Applause. )

AUDIENCE MEMBER: We love you, Audra! ( Laughter. )

MILITARY AIDE: National Humanities Medal Recipients:

Rudolfo Anaya. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Humanities Medal to Rudolfo Anaya for his pioneering stories of the American southwest. His works of fiction and poetry celebrate the Chicano experience and reveal universal truths about the human condition. And as an educator, he has spread a love of literature to new generations.

José Andrés. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Humanities Medal to José Andrés for cultivating our palates and shaping our culture. He has introduced new and vibrant ingredients to our nation, whether through his innovative techniques in the kitchen, his work on clean cooking technology and access to education, or the inspiration he provides to new Americans. ( Applause. )

Ron Chernow. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Humanities Medal to Ron Chernow for bringing our nation's story to life. Through his examination of America's successful giants and titans, he also invites his readers to discover their failures and foibles, uncovering enduring lessons that inform our modern era. ( Applause. )

Louise GlÃ╝ck. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Humanities Medal to Louise GlÃ╝ck for giving lyrical expression to our inner conflicts. Her use of verse connects us to the myths and the ancients, the magic of the natural world, and the essence of who we are. ( Applause. )

Terry Gross. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Humanities Medal to Terry Gross for her artful probing of the human experience. Her patient, persistent questioning in thousands of interviews over four decades has pushed public figures to reveal personal motivations behind extraordinary lives, revealing simple truths that affirm our common humanity. ( Applause. )

James McBride. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Humanities Medal to James McBride for humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America. Through writings about his own uniquely American story and his works of fiction informed by our shared history, his moving stories of love display the character of the American family. ( Applause. )

Louis Menand. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Humanities Medal to Louis Menand for prose and essays that invite us to think in new ways about the forces shaping our society. His influential works of intellectual and cultural history probe the power of ideas from one era to the next as they ripple across politics and culture. ( Applause. )

Elaine Pagels. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Humanities Medal to Elaine Pagels for her exploration of faith and its traditions. Through her study of ancient manuscripts and other scholarly work, she has generated new interest and dialogue about our contemporary search for knowledge and meaning. ( Applause. )

Accepting on behalf of the Prison University Project, Jody Lewen. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Humanities Medal to the Prison University Project for transforming the lives of currently incarcerated people through higher education. Its programs offer opportunity and inspiration to their students, providing an example for others to emulate. ( Applause. )

Abraham Verghese. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Humanities Medal to Abraham Verghese for reminding us that the patient is the center of the medical enterprise. His range of proficiency embodies the diversity of the humanities — from his efforts to emphasize empathy in medicine, to his imaginative renderings of the human drama. ( Applause. )

Isabel Wilkerson. ( Applause. ) The 2015 National Humanities Medal to Isabel Wilkerson for championing the stories of an unsung history. Her masterful combination of intimate human narratives with broader societal trends allows us to measure the epic migration of a people by its vast impact on our nation and on each individual life. ( Applause. )

THE PRESIDENT: Those are our honorees. Let's give them a big round of applause again. Hey! ( Applause. ) Once again, we thank them for their extraordinary contributions. We look forward to all the work they will be doing in the future.

Just a couple of other comments. One, I think Louise GlÃ╝ck has the coolest outfit. ( Laughter. ) Especially those spiked sneakers. I'm glad that Audra is already a good friend of mine. ( Laughter. ) So the fact that they kind of left out the citation, I think she'll forgive me. And I do think Mel Brooks kind of set the tone for this thing — ( laughter and applause ) — because, historically, this has been a much more staid affair. ( Laughter. ) But somehow, I think my quote of him in the beginning, it threw everything off. ( Laughter. )

Everybody, have fun. Enjoy the reception. Thank you. God bless you. ( Applause. )


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