SECRETARY CLINTON: It is such a delight to welcome you back here for this wonderful national tradition. It is, by any standard we can imagine, the best weekend in Washington. (Applause.) And it is the tenth time since I have been involved with helping to host some of the Kennedy Center Honors. For eight years, Bill and I were privileged to host at the White House, and now as Secretary of State I get the great honor of hosting you here.
And it was really extraordinary standing in the receiving line and seeing the genres and generations going by. (Laughter.) The full breadth and depth of American artistry and the diversity of this extraordinary, dynamic nation of ours. I am writing a cable about it, which I’m sure you’ll find soon on your closest website. (Laughter and applause.)
And this year, once again, we have an exceptional group of honorees. But in addition to the honorees, there are so many distinguished American leaders, icons, exemplars, and models here in this dinner. I cannot possibly name and recognize all of you. But it is, for us, a wonderful way to celebrate the arts by having those of us in government and politics and business come together and say to the American artistic community how much we value you and how greatly you enrich our country and how you are – (applause) – really our best exports.
As I travel around the world, I see firsthand the impact of American culture. And in the vast majority of my experiences, it’s exciting, it is inspiring, it’s dynamic; it gives particularly young people in places so far away a sense of freedom in their imagination and their aspirations. And for that, we are deeply grateful.
Now, in just a few minutes, the divine Jessye Norman, whom I was privileged to see receive her Kennedy Center laurel in 1997, will tell you more about the life and work of these five artists. So I will leave that her and our honorees, but I do want to just underscore why this is, for me, an event that stands out during the entire year and one that was worth flying very far to get back for – (laughter and applause) – because the great honor that I have being Secretary of State and going from country to country, meeting with leaders who share our values or, in many cases, reject them, but who all know that America stands for the liberation of the human spirit, who understand that the human drive to create adds texture and truth to our lives, and that it is universal and – yes – irresistible. And it may take decades in order for that to finally be accepted and realized, but we know it will happen. And we see it in our own lives and we see it in the work of so many of you who have brought great joy and challenge to us because of your willingness to go out there, to be vulnerable, to expose yourself, to take a chance, and then to see what happens.
And that is certainly true of the artists that we are celebrating tonight. This evening is not about honoring American artists, so much as it is about honoring artists who have to shape America. And it is an important distinction, not only because one of our honorees is a Knight of the Realm – (laughter) – but because America has always been influenced by the experiences and contributions of other cultures. Now, we certainly have our own signature way of doing things, but we thrive on the influx of ideas from all over the world. And as our nation of immigrants – proudly a nation of immigrants – becomes more diverse and our world more connected, our arts become even richer.
And our artists then, in effect, absorb and play back what is happening in the larger society. They reinterpret and remake all of those influences and create something new – an unmistakably American export that inspires and challenges people beyond our borders. So the circles of inspiration and creation continues, and overcomes the barriers that divide us. As I travel, I don’t just meet with heads of state or foreign ministers, but I try always to meet with citizens, and particularly young people. So I do town halls or other kinds of settings where I say a few words and then let people ask me questions. And there is just such a palpable influence of the American ideal which so often is transmitted because of the work of our artists. And I thank you for that because it does give a common ground, a common vocabulary that is often lacking that can help bring people together and bridge our differences.
The people that we honor tonight are really exemplars of what that means. Bill T. Jones recently won a Tony Award for his stunning choreography of Fela!. And he took the life and work of a Nigerian activist and pioneering Afrobeat composer and showed how it was originally influenced by American jazz and funk, and then went far beyond.
Jerry Herman is an icon of American musical theater – one of our great contributions to world arts. And we know him best for the distinctly American stories he tells through music and lyrics, but it was something that ranges from the story of Israel to Hello, Dolly! and covers a lot of ground in between.
Now, Paul McCartney has practically redefined music over the course of his lifetime, inspiring thousands of others. And I have to confess, Paul, several waves of teen girl hysteria – (laughter). I can still remember – and this really dates me – so there are a lot of young people here, but we used to have three television channels and we had black and white TVs, and every Sunday night, everybody in America watched the Ed Sullivan Show. (Laughter.) And that’s where we first saw the Beatles.
But it is exciting to have you here with us, and to have lived a life that has truly connected people from all over the world. Because our struggles for equality, our optimism about the future, our sense of adventure, is at the core of the American spirit. And no one captures that spirit better than Merle Haggard. He has chronicled the American experience for nearly half a century of ups and downs with great honesty, and poetry, and wry humor, and most importantly, hope. And he does tell us in a time of difficulty in his songs that adversity can be overcome, and everyone does get a second chance. Redemption is always at hand, whether you’re an individual or a nation.
And to say that Oprah influences American culture is like saying Jerry Herman writes a catchy tune – (laughter), or that Bill T. Jones is kind of flexible – (laughter). But her greatest strength is rooted in that heart that she has shared with America for so many years, and her just overwhelming desire to make a difference in the lives of people she will never meet but who feel like they know her. One Saudi woman told the American newspaper, The New York Times, a few years ago that, and I quote, “I feel that Oprah truly understands me…sometimes I think that she is the only person in the world who knows how I feel.” (Laughter and applause.)
So when we say that art is a common language that we share with one another and with people around the world, we’re not just paying lip service to something that sounds good in a speech. But we live it. We know that art changes the way that we think about ourselves, think about our surroundings, think about our country and our world. It opens our minds to new possibilities.
And tonight we are privileged to honor five remarkable people who move us, inspire us, and remind us of what the human spirit is capable of.
And now I’m turning it over to the chair of the Kennedy Center, David Rubenstein, who I heard gave a great speech at lunch. (Applause.) So, David, please.