Remarks at the 2018 Kennedy Center Honors

John J. Sullivan
Deputy Secretary of State
Washington, DC
December 2, 2018

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Good evening. It’s an honor for my wife, Grace Rodriguez, and me to welcome you to the Department of State. Secretary Pompeo asked that I extend his sincere regrets he’s unable to be with us tonight because of his travel to Buenos Aires for the G20 summit. It’s a real privilege to be asked to stand in for the Secretary of State at a very special event like this. Deputy secretaries are usually delegated humbler duties.

I’d like to begin by thanking Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein, Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter, Event Chair Suzanne Niedland for their service and leadership. And thanks to all of you in attendance tonight for coming to honor the esteemed recipients of this year’s Kennedy Center Honor.

Gathered as we are in the Department of State, I must note with a heavy heart the passing last night in Texas of President George H.W. Bush, my former boss many years ago. President Bush cherished this place and this institution. He was, of course, the U.S. permanent representative in the United Nations in the early 1970s, and later our first representative to the People’s Republic of China. And since we’re gathered in the Benjamin Franklin Room, I also note that President Bush shares a distinction with Franklin: They both served as our nation’s representative to a vitally important country but without holding the title of ambassador. 1974, when President Bush was named the chief of our liaison office in Beijing, the United States did not have diplomatic relations with China. Two hundred years before, when Franklin was sent on a commission to France and then appointed our minister in Paris, the Court of Versailles would not accept an ambassador from a self-declared republic like ours. Only sovereign monarchs exchanged ambassadors until well into the 19th century.

I’ve thought a lot about Franklin during my service as deputy secretary of state. We host many special historic events here in the Benjamin Franklin Room, including a luncheon earlier this year for President Macron of France during his state visit to the United States, and I’m often asked to provide remarks. The speechwriters who prepared a first draft appropriately note the venue, and refer to Franklin as the first American diplomat, our minister to France. But they also inevitably described him as, quote, “the father of the Foreign Service.” And that’s always struck me as a stale, patriarchal language unsuited for the 21st century, and unlikely to inspire young Foreign Service officers. But my effort to craft an alternative that would motivate a new generation to careers in American diplomacy – those efforts have failed recently. I spoke to a group of eminent retired U.S. diplomats here in this room; they were confused and appalled when I referred to Franklin as the original gangster of the Foreign Service. (Laughter.)

So I’ve shifted my thinking to alternatives to enliven the way we convey the remarkable life of Franklin. I had the idea of bringing Franklin’s story to life on the stage, perhaps even a musical. (Laughter.) Who would want to see that? Imagine, a musical about one of America’s founding fathers. (Laughter.) You laugh, but in fact, there was a Broadway musical about Franklin, Ben Franklin in Paris, staged in 1964, and it faded quickly into obscurity. (Laughter.)

But I’m serious about promoting and honoring America’s diplomats past and present, whether it’s Franklin, President Bush, or our current friends and colleagues at this department who are working to promote and protect America’s interests, America’s values, and American citizens at hundreds of posts, embassies, consulates, and missions around the world, many in dangerous and difficult circumstances. Their work is made easier by the worldwide popularity – indeed, the pervasive influence – of the best of American arts and culture, which is what we’re here to celebrate tonight.

It is through the arts that we, the American people, tell our story. We express the richness of our culture and artistry when we export it to the rest of the world. And the impact cannot be overstated. Music, theater, cinema – every medium we celebrate tonight (inaudible) United States shows to the world who we are. The work of the American artists gathered here in this room is a powerful form of diplomacy. Your influence is felt around the world.

The Kennedy Center Honors program recognizes these exceptional artists who have contributed so much to our culture and our world. The program is in its 41st year, and its honorees include some of the most iconic figures in the arts. This year’s honorees certainly fall squarely into that category.

Cher, our first honoree, needs no introduction. She’s commonly referred to as the, quote, “goddess of pop,” unquote, and I tested that assertion with a Google search, whose results showed that to be true. (Laughter.) But I use the word “commonly” with a purpose, because that is too common a title for such an extraordinary talent and person. She’s achieved towering success in music, on television, on stage, and in films. The accolades included here are too many to name. Her voice and her music – “I Got You Babe,” “If I Could Turn Back Time,” “Believe” – I could go on, to name just a few – those songs are loved worldwide and have made her a global superstar and a household name.

Composer and pianist Philip Glass is our second honoree. He’s no stranger to State Department programs and proudly represented the United States as a Fulbright Scholar in Paris in the 1960s. Since then, Mr. Glass has only gone on to compose more than 25 operas, 10 symphonies, as well as concertos, film soundtracks, and countless other works. Truly in a league of his own, he’s the recipient of the U.S. National Medal of the Arts, and next month the Los Angeles Philharmonic will present the world premiere of his 12th symphony.

Our third honoree is another legend, Reba McEntire. And I am not ashamed to say as a humble bureaucrat, I can’t believe I got to shake Reba McEntire’s hand. (Laughter.) I’m telling you, it’s unbelievable. Thank you, Mike Pompeo. (Laughter.) Her songs – “Fancy,” “Is There Life Out There,” “I’m a Survivor” – have given her worldwide fame. She’s recorded 25 number-one singles and sold over 56 million albums. But she’s achieved great success in other fields, including on television and in movies. All you have to do is say her first name, and the world knows exactly who you’re talking about.

Wayne Shorter, the famous jazz saxophonist and composer is next. He deservedly has been called – and again, I quote – a genius, trailblazer, a visionary, and one of the world’s greatest composers. He’s played with Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Carlos Santana – the list goes on. He’s won 11 Grammy Awards, including a lifetime achievement award, but admirably, he does not rest on his laurels. He’s now working on his first album.

Finally, we honor the co-creators of Hamilton, and I hope they will consider my suggestion of Franklin: An American Musical. I’m just saying, Hamilton’s secretary of treasury; versus the secretary of state. (Laughter.) Just think about that. These individuals – Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Andy Blankenbuehler, and Alex Lacamoire – together they wrote, acted in, directed, choreographed, and arranged what has become the best known, groundbreaking stage production of our time. They are trailblazers who have created art that defies categorization, breaks down barriers, and brings American history to life.

My youngest son, Teddy, is a senior at Hamilton College and among the show’s biggest fans. He likes to wear his college sweatshirt around Miami – excuse me, around Manhattan – and engage the tourists who ask where do they paraphernalia like that from the show. (Laughter.) He patiently explains to them the merits of college, the musical, and being at the center of both.

Now, I know I’m standing in the way of your dinner, so I will conclude with an acknowledgement of a prior Kennedy Center honoree – and I kind of slipped this before when I said Miami instead of Manhattan – and that’s because we’re joined tonight by Gloria Estefan. Welcome back. (Applause.) My wife Grace and the Rodriguez family are delighted to see whom we consider the first lady of Cuban Americans here tonight.

Thank you, again, on behalf of the Department of State, for allowing us to be part of this celebration to pay tribute to the lifetime contributions of the remarkable women and men we honor tonight. Please enjoy your dinner. Thanks. (Applause.)