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Well, I could tell by the number of people who were dancing at your tables and by Jessye Norman’s and Herbie Hancock’s smile, that was pretty good. It was all right. (Laughter.) Anyway, they were great. (Applause.) I was waiting for “Anchors Aweigh” as they went out though; we didn’t get it. (Laughter.)
Good evening and welcome, everybody, to the State Department. We are really privileged to have all of you here tonight for this very, very special celebratory evening. It’s a very special privilege for me to welcome all of the distinguished guests – and believe me, everybody here is distinguished. I particularly, though, want to welcome those colleagues in government and former colleagues in government, particularly my former colleagues from the Senate and the House and my cabinet colleague Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce, former Secretary Bill Cohen, and others of you who have served. We’re very grateful for all of you being here for this special evening.
I had the privilege of hosting this event last year for the first time, and believe me, I look forward to it. And I got back from five days or six days of ministerial meetings in Europe literally last night so that I could be here, and I didn’t want to miss it. It’s a special evening and the quality of the honorees is what makes it special, and the quality of those of you who come here to celebrate them. But it’s about America, it’s about us, all of us together – our culture, who we are, who we aspire to be – that makes this special.
It’s also special because this is Washington. And here in Washington a super bowl is a pipe dream – (laughter) – the last World Series was about 90 years ago, and the next presidential campaign won’t start for at least a couple of days. (Laughter and applause.) So for the nation’s capital, this is, as Joe Biden might say, a big deal. (Laughter.) As we know here at the Kennedy Center Honors, there are no politics, there’s no partisan bickering, there’s no name calling – (laughter) – there’s no attacking each other, because after all, that is what we do in the midterm elections. But I want to make it clear – and I’m sure this has already occurred to you – not every gathering that we have at the State Department attracts an audience as glamorous as this one – though I’m proud to say this setting is pretty special. And those of us who are privileged to serve here, believe me, we feel that privilege every day in these halls.
This particular room was named for the fellow up there in the portrait, Ben Franklin, who advised us all to go to bed early, but that was before he became our ambassador in Paris. (Laughter.) Franklin then said that wine is constant proof that God loves us – (laughter) – and wants us to be happy. So apparently Franklin was against parties before he was for them – (laughter) – and I can relate to that. (Applause.) And if you’ve read anything at all about Franklin’s – this is true. If you’ve read anything about his tenure in Paris, it is clear that if he were alive today he would never get confirmed by the United States Senate. (Laughter.) So – which reminds me that the good news tonight is that there’s only one potential obstacle between you and an absolutely perfect evening, and that is my speech.
The bad news is that for almost 30 years I was a senator, and some people are born to dance, some people are born to sing, but let me tell you, senators are born to talk. With constituents, media, colleagues, strangers, really anyone – even a volleyball. Yes, Tom Hanks, you’re not the only one. (Laughter.)
But today, I find myself in a job where nothing is more important than listening. It’s a job with incredible highs and devastating lows. And all of us here felt the lowest of those lows when our country awoke this morning to learn of the death of an idealistic young photojournalist named Luke Somers, who was killed by terrorists in Yemen. It was a sickening contrast – a young man who carried a camera to bring light to the world was struck down by those who know only darkness. Our sorrow and our prayers for Luke Somer’s family are matched only by our determination to defend the freedoms of thought and expression that al-Qaida and other extremists fear so much, and which are a big part of why we are here tonight.
We can’t defend those freedoms effectively unless we act but also unless we listen. And I can tell you that in the past two years I have packed a lifetime of listening into a very short period of time. In the process, I have heard and seen how the United States is perceived around the world. And through it all, I have found that some people have problems with our policies, some resent our prosperity, and even a few have doubts about how well our political system is functioning.
But there is one constant: Everywhere I go, almost everyone and certainly all of the younger generation is attracted to American culture, including those who would never actually admit that such a thing exists. And I think part of the reason why is that whenever people of another country look at us, they see a part of themselves. American culture is a glorious blend of everything from Albanian to Zimbabwean, and every letter in between is filled. And when all of our traditions come together, they create a kind of universal language that is a very significant asset for the American brand.
Some people might ask: Well, what’s the link between the Kennedy Center Honors and the Department of State? Well, here is the answer. People make connections in lots of ways, and sometimes that connection is quicker to take hold through music, dance, theater, film more so than the words of a diplomat, even a charismatic and handsome diplomat. (Laughter.) Call it what you will, whether it was Nixon’s Ping-Pong diplomacy or today’s cultural diplomacy, all I can tell you is the connection of this endeavor of the arts connects – it touches, really, something deep in every human spirit. And whether it’s the pianists or dobro players, Zydeco bands, jazz singers, filmmakers, dance companies, and artists that we send to every single corner of the globe, this is about citizen diplomats who go to remote and troubled communities and open doors for conversations with the young, with the poor, and the too-often overlooked.
Think about a film festival with former American street gang members warning about the dangers of urban violence; or a hip-hop event in the Caucasus that brought together military-age youth from Muslim and Christian communities; or a program to empower women writers in South Sudan; or a documentary shown in Algeria to promote education, not radicalization, in prisons; or a concert for ethnic minority children in China that ended in a rousing chorus of the children’s favorite song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
This is a side of diplomacy that a lot of people don’t often hear about. We’re very proud of it. It is winning friends for America and it’s helping our citizens reach out and touch the world. And every time we do it and everywhere we do it, whether we proclaim it or just let the performance speak for itself, no one misses the connection between artistic expression and freedom. It’s no coincidence that a year before the Berlin Wall fell, in front of an East German audience of 300,000, Bruce Springsteen, who’s here tonight, sang about the chimes of freedom. There’s no coincidence that among those who ignited revolution in Central Europe a generation ago was a playwright, Vaclav Hovel; and that among those who sparked the democratic uprising in Tunisia, almost four years ago, was a rapper who grew up idolizing America’s hip-hop pioneers. In Beijing, the blogger and multidimensional artist Ai Weiwei is a voice of conscience. And yes, in Russia, a certain all-female rock band has gotten under the skin of you-know-who. (Laughter.)
All of this goes to underscore what everybody in this room, I think, knows well – that art can be and art should be a transformational force across the globe. And if we need any further evidence of that, we have only to contemplate the careers of the artists that we gather to honor tonight. Now it’s not my role to list all of their achievements, no. I would love to. And I wouldn’t presume to steal Jessye Norman’s thunder. (Laughter.) But I would like, on behalf of everyone here, just to offer a very brief word of appreciation.
Pastor Al Green is truly a king of soul. His many masterpieces include Let’s Stay Together, which inspired our commander-in-chief to risk his career by singing in public. (Laughter.) Al Green, thank you. (Applause.)
Over the decades, Tom Hanks has brilliantly portrayed the boy next door, a soldier, an astronaut, a castaway, a detective, a hit man, a young gay man fighting AIDS, Forrest Gump, and even a guy hanging around an airport, all the while earning and deserving a reputation as a very nice guy, except when he broke my nose in a hockey game. (Laughter.) Tom Hanks, I forgive you and we thank you. (Applause.) And by the way, that’s a true story. (Laughter.)
Patricia McBride, we were not able to arrange to shower you with roses tonight, but we can express our gratitude to you for inspiring millions of girls and probably a fair share of boys to reach for their dancing slippers. We thank you for your grace and your wonder. (Applause.)
Every Kennedy Center honoree comes to this event obviously already famous. But only one can say that his work on behalf of indigenous peoples earned him the honor of having a species of a tree frog named after him. (Laughter.) Sting, thank you for your activism – (applause) – and thank you for continuing to share your incredible talent. (Applause.)
And Lily Tomlin, I got to tell you, from the era of Laugh-In to this very night, you have been what those of us from Boston might call wicked awesome. (Laughter.) In my family, we still begin phone conversations by asking, “Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?” (Laughter.) Your comedy is really at its edgiest and it is a verbal WMD, a weapon of macho destruction. (Laughter.) So thank you for the laughter that you have given us across generations and gender. Thank you. (Applause.)
So these five artists speak to us in a way that art as a whole speaks to everyone. And it doesn’t matter whether you live in a big city, in a penthouse, or in a tiny village with only dirt for a floor. The power of art, of music, of dance is the power to inspire dreams, to lift the spirit and move the soul. It is the beauty in that power that we celebrate here tonight and tomorrow night, the beauty as expressed unforgettably by five extraordinary artists and even the beauty inherent in the touch of the artist that is a precious piece, I think, of each and every one of us.
So it’s my privilege now to introduce to you someone who puts a lot of effort into inspiring dreams and lifting the spirit. Please welcome David Rubenstein. (Applause.)