President Barack Obama honored 20 artists, scholars and writers — from musicians James Taylor to Quincy Jones, from authors Philip Roth to Joyce Carol Oates — in a salute to the arts and humanities that embraced both celebrity and quiet achievement.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama filled the East Room of the White House Wednesday with an array of talent that transcended generations and reached into the worlds of letters and music, history and dance, criticism and film.
"One of the great joys of being president is getting a chance to pay tribute to the artists and authors, poets and performers who have touched our hearts and opened our minds," Obama said, adding with a knowing look, "or in the case of Quincy Jones and James Taylor, set the mood."
Two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep and Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," also were honored, but were unable to attend the ceremony.
The president bestowed 10 National Medal of Arts and 10 National Humanities Medals.
"I speak personally here because there are people here whose books or poetry or works of history shaped me," he said. Nodding conspiratorially toward arts medalist and jazz artist Sonny Rollins seated before him, he said: "I've got these thumb-worn editions of these works of art and these old records where they were still vinyl, 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."
Later, Taylor made his way to the White House press briefing room where he marveled at the nearly saucer-sized medal around his neck.
"I'm just over the moon, sailing," he said.
Taylor, who campaigned for Obama in 2008 and had to cancel a concert with his son Ben in Des Moines to attend Wednesday's ceremony, offered the president a bit of political advice
"I think that the administration has been almost too modest in their accomplishments," he said. "I'm hoping the American public understands who we've got here, what we've got in this president."
In his salute, Obama noted that the honorees had contributed to both the intellectual growth of the nation, but also had provided the nation with diversion — a chance to laugh or escape from the pressures of the moment.
"We also remember the art that challenged our assumptions; the scholarship that brought us closer to the events of our history; the poetry that we loved — or at least the poetry that we might recite to a girlfriend to seem deep," he said. "Of course, we still hum the great songs by the musicians in this room — songs that in many cases have been the soundtrack of our lives over decades."
As the honorees and guests made their way out the East Room, the Marine Band, a fixture at ceremonies such as this, played some familiar strains — it was a medley of Taylor favorites.
Others receiving arts medals included Van Cliburn, the world-renowned pianist who broke into the international scene in 1958 by winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.