Good evening, and let me welcome you to the Benjamin Franklin Room here on the 8th floor of the State Department. (Applause.) We have so many wonderful, distinguished guests here. But since this is Washington, let me acknowledge Secretary Sebelius of the Health and Human Services Department. (Applause.) Let me thank the members of Congress who support the Kennedy Center year in and year out. Let’s give them a round of applause. (Applause.) And let me acknowledge Mayor Gray from Washington, D.C., who is our host mayor for this event.
This is the 34th time we have celebrated the Kennedy Center Honors, and I am delighted to be here with you again. Some of you mentioned during the receiving line that you always wonder if I will make it. So do I. (Laughter.) Every year I end up flying all night to make it back to this dinner, but I am so grateful I do. (Applause.) And tonight, we have the opportunity to salute the luminous talents of our honorees and their many contributions to the American artistic landscape.
Now, you will hear more about each of our honorees, but I have to tell you it’s pretty exciting for me to be here with Barbara Cook, and Barbara is still knocking audiences off their feet; Sonny Rollins, since I’m married – (applause) – to a sax player; Yo-Yo Ma, who has performed for American presidents for 50 years. (Applause.) That means he started when he was six years old. And I’ve got to tell you, Neil Diamond, who has been in every part of my life. (Applause.) Neil Diamond’s hair alone is remarkable. (Laughter.) And as someone whose hair has occasionally caused a certain comment or two, I think I’m allowed to say that. (Laughter.) And of course Meryl Streep, who has been so consistently brilliant. (Applause.) She’s like a shape changer. You’re never quite sure what you’re going to see. And then when you see it, you go, “Oh, I recognize that.” It is absolutely perfect, and we’re so pleased she could be here.
Now, I will leave the achievements of many of our honorees to our emcee for the evening, the incomparable, absolutely extraordinary Renee Fleming – (applause) – who has been a friend for so many years. And I think we all join with her and her new husband in congratulating them for this wonderful marriage that they have achieved. And we just wish them the very best.
Now, I was told earlier that because I was First Lady for eight years, because I was lucky enough to be married to Bill Clinton, who’s sitting with Sonny Rollins over there, I got to host the Kennedy Center Honors eight years. And this is my third year as Secretary of State welcoming you all here for this fabulous dinner. And I’m always struck by how wonderful it is for us to be able to celebrate the American arts, which have meant so much to all of us, but also means so much around the world.
Now, we know that American music, particularly rock and roll, and American movies really penetrated the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. But it’s also true that as I now travel around the world and meet people who weren’t born during the Cold War, who are now the artists and the activists of their own nations, they still are so influenced by American culture. I think that’s a good thing. I think the freedom, the creativity, the openness – (applause) – that they’re exposed to really gives them a sense of what is possible.
I was just in Burma, and I met with a group of civil society activists, many of whom had just come out of jail with the recent release of 200 prisoners. I met the leading comedian in Burma, who is prohibited from performing by the government still. I met the leading hip hop artist of Burma, who has not been able to perform, because everyone has been threatened who would give him a venue, and this is after these men served five, ten, eleven years in prison. And they are so connected and yearning for what goes on outside of this very closed country. Well, that’s an extreme example, but it’s indicative of what I see everywhere I go.
I remember when I was in India in 1995, and I met with a large group of Indian women who were part of an organization called SEWA, which was almost a union formed to help these very, very poor women organize to be able to demand their rights. And we were meeting in Gujarat province, and we were sitting under a tent, and some of them had walked actually two days to get to meet me. And we talked about their struggle for rights and the problems of survival they faced every single day. And at the end of the meeting, they stood up and sang “We Shall Overcome” in Gujarati. Now, that’s a song made famous because of American spirituals, because of our civil rights movement. It had crossed oceans and decades and languages to unite people. And it was such a beautiful expression of the human spirit.
And I think often about the contributions that all of you who are artists make every day. You may not know it, but somewhere in a little, tiny room in Burma or even in North Korea, someone is desperately trying to hear you or to see you, to experience you. And if they are lucky enough to make that connection, it can literally change lives and countries.
I remember when Vaclav Havel was here for a state dinner that Bill and I hosted, and we asked him, “Who do you want to have come perform at your state dinner?” And he said, “I want Lou (inaudible).” (Laughter.) He said, “Because all those years in prison and all those years behind the Iron Curtain, his music penetrated. And we could identify with the anger and the passion and the extraordinary determination that it embodied.”
So art also becomes more powerful when we experience it together, and I think the Kennedy Center is a real celebration of that. When the artists are chosen, it’s a tribute not only to the individual honorees, but to the American artistic experience. So tonight, when we honor Neil and Barbara and Sonny and Yo-Yo and Meryl, we are not just honoring their individual accomplishments as extraordinary as they are and what they have meant to each of us individually, we are honoring what they stand for and what they mean for the human spirit, for creativity. And what that stands for to me is America. And it makes the world a better place. And it gives to me extra tools that I can use in my diplomacy, because I really believe that the breadth and depth of American creativity is one of the strongest tools that we have.
So for all of those and many other reasons, particularly the individual times that I have enjoyed each of these artists, I am delighted once again to host you. And now I would like to welcome the Kennedy Center’s chairman, David Rubenstein, to the podium, who will, as he has done ever since he became chairman, surprise you that a billionaire can be so funny. (Laughter.) So David, please come join us. (Applause.)