Biden Hosts Kennedy Center Honorees at White House
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden welcomed the 2022 Kennedy Center honorees to the White House on Sunday, mixing a bit of politics with good cheer and his full-throated support of the arts.
On a glittering night in the East Room of the White House vibrantly decorated for Christmas, Biden reflected on how both politics and the arts, at their best, are reflections of the people they spring from.
“We the people,” said Biden from the small stage he shared with honorees George Clooney, Amy Grant, Gladys Knight, the Cuban composer Tania León, and the Irish rock group U2.
“We the people,” he said again.
“Those are the first words in the Constitution and they are the beating heart of our democracy … the story of our nation … that are what makes America, America,” he said.
“Our democracy is something I talked about just a few days ago with French President Emmanuel Macron, when we hosted him as our guest at our first state visit,” the president continued.
“France, of course, is our oldest ally. And we talked about the inflection point we face as free nations, and how the choices we make today, in the next several months, and in the next years as well, will be determinative for decades to come.
“As we spoke of everything from the war in Ukraine to the climate crisis to a global economy on the move, what we shared was a confidence and an optimism that we will face this moment because of our faith in we the people,” Biden said.
Switching gears, the president, in black tie for an evening of events that would culminate at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, then spoke of New Orleans, Louisiana, native Jon Batiste, who just a few nights before had serenaded the French president and wife Brigitte Macron with his hit song “Freedom.”
“The son of an acclaimed family of New Orleans jazz musicians and civil rights leaders, [Batiste] spoke of the power of art to bring people together despite our differences, to see ourselves in one another and to unite in a common cause.
“Tonight, we celebrate a truly exceptional group of artists,” the president said. “They are all incredible.”
Biden then went on to pay tribute to each of the honorees in turn. Among the boldface names in the crowded East Room were Matt Damon and Julie Roberts, Michael Fanone, the former D.C. police officer who is now an on-air contributor to CNN, Pearl Jam lead vocalist Eddie Vedder, Sean Penn, Garth Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood, and Katie Couric.
Administration officials on hand included Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president.
Starting with Clooney, whom he introduced as Amal Clooney’s husband, Biden offered a thumbnail sketch of the actor and director’s career, but quickly shifted focus to his humanitarian work “challenging the powerful on behalf of the powerless.”
“He travels to war zones to end genocides and war crimes, exposes war profiteers, helps refugees and advances the rights of journalists,” the president said. “He’s raised millions to support 9/11 first responders and victims of natural disasters and mentored the Parkland students when they marched against gun violence.”
“That’s a life of purpose … and though he knows that work remains unfinished, he is unrelenting and undaunted. That’s character. That’s George Clooney,” the president said.
The biggest sighs and applause of the night came when Biden, evidently a true fan, spoke at length of his admiration for Gladys Knight and her original backing group, the Pips.
“She has performed on the world’s biggest stages, but the performance I remember best was a performance at the 100th anniversary of the Delaware State Fair.
“That’s no joke. It was pretty special and people down at the fair still speak about it,” he said.
After recounting both her legacy of hits and her humanitarian efforts on behalf of World AIDS Day and other causes, Biden told a beaming Knight that her voice had “fixed our hearts … lifted our spirits and brought us together.“
“Gladys, you truly are one of the best things that ever happened to us, and we’re going to get on that ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ because I’d rather live in your world than to live without it.”
Biden began his remarks about U2 by quoting the Irish poet William Butler Yeats and calling U2 poets in their own right “whose music has changed the world.”
“This is a poetry of protest, rebellion and rejoicing, faith, hope and love, and a belief in the dignity of all people everywhere,” he said.
“U2 has spoken and sung about the unspeakable costs of hate and anger and division,” Biden continued. “The pain, the suffering, the denial of freedom, the senseless loss of life and the inhumanity we inflict on one another as nations, as people, and in our own lives. All flowing from division, that for all of us, its physical manifestations lie first and foremost in our hearts.”
“In songs like ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ ‘Pride in the Name of Love,’ ‘Ordinary Love,’ and ‘One,’ U2 has sung about the unspeakable costs of hate, anger, pain, and suffering. … Just before America’s bloody and deadly Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln said, ‘We are not enemies. We must not be enemies.’
“In the midst of that great division, that was President Lincoln’s plea. We would do well to remember that today … when there’s too much anger, too much division here in America and, frankly, around the world.”
Biden then quoted the lyrics of “One,” a number one hit around the world in 1992.
“What we need to remember today, as the song goes, ‘One life but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other.’”
The Kennedy Center honors a select group of people every year for their artistic influences on American culture.
This year’s Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 28 at 8 p.m. Eastern time.
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