Standing in the East Room of the White House, President Obama spoke ardently of the role of artists and writers in building the values of the country, and adding to his own identity.
"There are people here whose books or poetry or works of history shaped me. I've got these thumb-worn editions of these works of art and these old records [when] they were still vinyl," said Obama, speaking before he presented a group of luminaries the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal. He looked directly at jazz saxophone great Sonny Rollins, resplendent in a long red shirt. And the audience laughed as Obama continued, "Sonny--before they went digital that helped inspire me or get me through a tough day or take risks that I might not otherwise have taken."
Some of the president's remarks were intentionally light-hearted, and others perhaps not so.. He spoke of poets and performers "who have touched our hearts and opened our minds--or, in the case of Quincy Jones and James Taylor, set the mood." When he described the impact of literature, and mentioned Philip Roth's seminal "Portnoy's Complaint,"Obama said, "How many young people have learned to think by reading the exploits of Portnoy and his complaints?" While the room rocked with laughter, Obama smiled and stared at his notes with an expression that read "did I just say that."
A military aide read the citations, as Obama placed the be-ribboned medals on the recipients who attended the ceremony. All of them got a bear hug and handshake, with pianist Van Cliburn standing as rimrod as the president, with both men looking like they were about to salute.
The 2010 National Medal of Arts was given to Robert Brustein, the critic and founder of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre; Cliburn, the famed pianist who won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958; and sculptor Mark di Suvero. Also poet Donald Hall, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, musician and producer Jones; jazz master Rollins and musician and songwriter Taylor were honored. Cited by the White House but not present were award-winning actress Meryl Streep and Harper Lee, author of the landmark "To Kill a Mockingbird." Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival was also honored.
The ceremony also included the scholars and writers who were given the 2010 National Humanities Medal. They were historian Bernard Bailyn, poet Wendell E. Berry, scholar Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, Stanley Nider Katz, the president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, biographer Arnold Rampersad, novelist Roth and historian Gordon Wood. Also honored, but not able to be at the ceremony, were Daniel Aaron, the founding president of the Library of America and cultural historian Jacques Barzun.