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 You are in: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice > Former Secretaries of State > Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell > Speeches and Remarks > 2003 > December

Remarks at the 26th Annual Kennedy Center Honors Dinner

Secretary Colin L. Powell
Benjamin Franklin Room
Washington, DC
December 6, 2003

(7:30 p.m. EST)


SECRETARY POWELL:  Alma and I and all of our colleagues at the Kennedy Center are delighted to welcome all of you to the State Department.  One of the great honors I have being Secretary of State is that I get to host the Kennedy Center Honors Dinner each year in this beautiful Ben Franklin State Dining Room.  This room is one of 42 such reception rooms that we have here in the Department; not all of them are quite this grand.  And I hope you've noticed in the course of the evening that adorning these chambers of honor is a magnificent collection of American fine and decorative arts from our nation's early years, and I hope that in the course of the evening you'll have a chance to stroll around and view these extraordinary exhibits of Americana.  They aren't props, my artist friends.  (Laughter.)  They're real and they're all national treasures.


I often come up to this part of the building from my office one floor below and just wander around and look at the holdings that we have up here, look at the portraits.  I come up here for inspiration.  These rooms have a marvelous way of putting you in touch with the democratic ideas and ideals that animated our founding fathers.  We hold hundreds of events on this floor and in this room every year.  In the past few months, I have hosted the President of Kenya here, the Foreign Ministers of Mexico, Germany, Britain, and not too long ago I had an Iftaar Dinner for the international Islamic community to mark the holy season of Ramadan.


I also make a point of swearing in all of our new ambassadors here.  On Monday at noon, I will swear in the new American Ambassador to the Czech Republic.  It's not just a matter of sending them off in grand style; these surroundings show President Bush's newest envoys that they continue a long tradition of selfless service.  But it might amuse you to know that whenever I do swear in an ambassador here, I tell him about this room and I tell him how we use it, and I always get a big and wonderful reaction when I tell him that this is where, every year in December, the Kennedy Center stars gather.  And they all go, "Oooh," and, "Aaaah."  (Laughter.)


But even more important than the dignitaries I host in this room are the new Foreign Service and Civil Service officers that I swear in.  About once every three or four months, a wonderful group of young Americans, maybe 100 or 150 of them, are seated here.  And these young people are just at the beginning of their careers, but the future success of American diplomacy, our foreign policy around the world, will depend upon their skill and their dedication and their patriotism.  For surely as our men and women in uniform do, the men and women of American diplomacy help our country stand tall on the frontlines of freedom.  I know I speak for all of us when I say that tonight our thoughts and prayers turn to our fellow Americans, in uniform or not, who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other far-flung places around the world.  (Applause.)


At times like these, we are reminded of the fundamentals, of the basics.  We are reminded of how precious life and freedom are.  We are reminded of how blessed we are as a country.  We are reminded of the sacrifices that Americans of every generation have made, not just to preserve and protect and defend our way of life, but also to help others around the globe secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and for their children.


Next Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Center, president of the Kennedy Center Michael Kaiser and I will have the honor to co-host the Iraqi National Symphony as it performs before the President of the United States.  It will perform with our own National Symphony Orchestra and with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.  Together we will celebrate the reentry of Iraqi culture onto the world stage.  The Iraqi National Symphony testifies to the power of the arts, the power of the arts to keep hope alive, even under the cruelest oppressor.  The American people can be proud that they will be here and that we are helping the men and women of Iraq realize their long-held dream of freedom.  (Applause.) 


American foreign policy is all about helping to build hope across the globe.  For the sake of our most cherished values and our most vital interests, President Bush is deeply committed to working with friends and former foes around the world to build a world of hope where tyrants and terrorists cannot thrive. 


All around the world America is helping societies create non-corrupt, representative institutions that serve all of the people in all the nations of the world.  All around the world we are helping countries create democratic and market conditions that can attract trade and investment, spur development, and lift millions and millions of people out of poverty. 


Across the globe, with our support, once isolated populations are broadening their horizons and embracing the promise of a global marketplace.  We are forging partnerships with citizen groups, private businesses and governments to combat infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.  We are reaching out to people on every continent, seeking to communicate and cooperate in addressing a host of shared concerns.


And that's where our Kennedy Center honorees come in.  If we here at the State Department practice the art of diplomacy, you practice the diplomacy of art.  Mike Nichols, James Brown, Itzhak Perlman, Carol Burnett and Loretta Lynn, you reach millions across the world.  Your art helps acquaint foreign publics with America and its rich diversity of experience and expression.  You do it with honesty and humor, with intelligence and excellence, and always, always you do it with feeling.


Mike Nichols, all Americans have indelible memories of your brilliant stage and screen work, from your early routines with Elaine May that I remember so very, very well, so many years ago in New York, and I'm so pleased that Elaine is here with us.  Through Barefoot in the Park, to the Odd Couple, The Graduate, Silkwood, Birdcage, Primary Colors, and now Angels in America, Mike, you have an uncanny knack for capturing the climate of an era.  All of us admire your wit, your sophistication, your insight, and, of course, your wife.  (Laughter and Applause.)  In this town, it never hurts to suck up to the press when you get the chance.  (Laughter.)


I have to say, Mike, though, that when I got my college diploma I had a much different experience than your young Benjamin in The Graduate.  The one famous word they had for him was:  plastics.  For me, they had two words:  boot camp.  (Laughter.)  Tonight, Mike, I offer back three words:  We Salute You.  And we thank you for entertaining and for moving us.  Thank you, Mike.  (Applause.)


For five decades, the creative explosions in popular music caused by Mr. Dynamite, James Brown, have reverberated around the globe.  I listened to James' R&B hits in the 1950s.  So did a teenager named Mick Jagger.


In the 1960s, I recall his soul music pouring out of Army hootches in Vietnam.  In the '70s and '80s, my kids listened to James and a whole new generation of artists listened, artists whose style and music were sparked by his innovations.  And now my grandkids and folks such as Eminem and LL Cool J and so many others are into rap and hip-hop.  They are only the latest detonations from the global chain reaction that James ignited half a century ago.


And who can forget his marvelous dance moves:  the spin, the shuffle, the moonwalk.  (Applause.)  I was going to do it.  (Laughter.)  But Alma said no.  (Laughter.)  She said, one, I might embarrass myself, but I also might hurt myself.  (Laughter.)


James, you know, I really could use you.  (Laughter.)  I could use you on those diplomatic conferences that I have to go to, sitting there all day long as I did earlier this week in the Netherlands and in Brussels, meetings that went on forever and ever.  Man, you could have livened up things at the end of a long day, when we're all dying to reach an agreement on something!  (Laughter.)  I can just see you now, jumping up, throwing off the cape. (Laughter.)  "Get up!  Get up!  Get up offa that thing!"  (Applause.)  Please, please, please, let me see it!


Godfather, I hereby appoint you Secretary of Soul and Foreign Minister of Funk.  (Laughter and Applause.)  And I thank you.  (Applause.)  Don't get me started.  Don't get me started.


When Itzhak Perlman came to the United States in 1958, it was Israel's temporary loss and the world's permanent gain.  I was thinking about what I might say about Itzhak tonight, and my staff was trying to help me, and then about two days ago, I got an email from my Chief of Staff, a dear friend of mine, an old war buddy by the name of Colonel Larry Wilkerson.  Larry is an infantry officer like me.  He's a combat helicopter pilot, served in Vietnam, and he's been with me, and been my close friend and advisor for 14 years.  He's a soldier.


I thought I knew everything there was to know about Larry, but I didn't.  And let me just quote to you what he wrote to me in this email about Itzhak.  "Perlman is the most exquisitely sublime violinist I have ever heard, and I've listened to all of the best.  He is the only violinist who, when his work begins to play on the radio, I can immediately say, 'That's Perlman,' and be right more than 99 percent of the time.  Is it not strange that sheepsguts should hail souls out men's bodies.  Indeed, it is.  And with Perlman, the soul stays in suspended animation, long after the dying of the last vibration of the strings."


That's quite a tribute from a old soldier of Itzhak, who speaks for all of us.  You have our profound gratitude and our thanks.  Congratulations.  (Applause.)


Carol Burnett, America's most beloved comedic actress.  Who can forget her ear tug, her Tarzan yell, or her famous Scarlett O'Hara descending the staircase in a gown made from the upstairs drapes with the curtain rod still attached.  (Laughter.)  Carol, you are practically a member of every American family.  You have been such a welcome presence in our living rooms for so many years.  They say that there is tragedy behind all great comedy, and that may be true, but Carol, it's your deep humanity that makes your work both comedic and dramatic, so very, very wonderful and special.


And to think that Carol got her first big break in show business by singing a love song to the then-Secretary of State of the United States of America John Foster Dulles.  She sang the song on the Jack Paar Show, she sang the song on the Ed Sullivan Show.  The name of the song was, "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles."  John Foster Dulles was the 52nd Secretary of State.  I am the 65th Secretary of State.  And I have been waiting since the beginning of the evening and I get nothing.  (Laughter.)  This famous song from 1957, I'll only paraphrase it, but it goes something like, "Carol made a fool of herself over John Foster Dulles.  The first time she saw him was at the UN.  She had never been one to swoon over men.  But she swoooooned, and the drums started pounding, and then --" but I can't go on.  Carol, Carol, Carol, I'm awfully jealous of John Foster Dulles.  (Laughter and Applause.)  But I forgive you and I love you and we all do.  (Applause.)


Loretta Lynn, our first lady of country music, you write 'em and sing 'em straight from your heart.  And they go straight into the hearts of your listeners.  That's why your music speaks to millions here at home who don't even have a rural background and the millions more abroad who may never have set foot in the United States.  In your songs and in your lyrics, people hear a good woman's passion and pain, plainspoken truth and pure God-given talent.


Loretta, you made our entire nation proud of the Coalminer's Daughter from Butcher's Holler.  And the world looks at you like your song says "they're lookin' at country," but darlin', what they're seeing is the bright shining spirit of America.  And Loretta, I know that all of us here tonight join me in sending a special thank you to you, and also to someone who always is near you in spirit, your beloved Doo.  Thank you.  (Applause.)


A few years ago, I wrote my autobiography.  It was called My American Journey.  The simple theme was that only in America could a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family have the opportunities to become what I have been so privileged to become.  But each and every one of our honorees here tonight has a variation of that same story to tell. 


Each of our honorees can tell a story of tough times, of hard work, of good luck, of challenge and opportunity.  Each struggled to overcome obstacles, physical, emotional, financial or societal.  All have been fortunate to encounter good people along the way who believed in them and helped them follow their dream:  a beloved grandmother, a benefactor, a mentor, a partner, Ed Sullivan.  And all our honorees have found ways of serving others as a way of giving back to the society that has given them so much.


Each and every one of our honorees can tell a story of faith, faith in themselves and faith in America.  Our honorees are the embodiment of freedom's force, the creative force that established our nation and that shapes it to this day.  In their lives and in their art, our Kennedy Center honorees tell the vibrant hopeful story of America.  And the glory of that story is that it is still being written.  We are a country that is still creating itself.  We are still struggling to live up to our founding principles.  We are still striving to extend the boundaries and the bounties of freedom to all Americans and to create fresh hope for people all around the world.


So on behalf of President and Mrs. Bush, on behalf of the men and women of the Department of State, on behalf of the American people, I wish to thank Carol Burnett, James Brown, Loretta Lynn, Mike Nichols and Itzhak Perlman for their incomparable contributions to the performing arts, to America and to the world.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)


Our thanks to Candace Bergen and to all of the toasters, and now it is my pleasure to introduce someone who doubly distinguishes this glittering event.  First, Senator Edward Kennedy's presence tonight gives us all a sense of personal connection to President Kennedy and his commitment to the advancement of the arts.  That commitment lives on in Ted and in the other members of the Kennedy family, and in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which bears his distinguished brother's name.


And Senator Kennedy's presence at the State Department is fitting because of his leadership in international affairs.  He has done so much in his own right to bring hope to men and women here at home and all across the globe.  All Americans can be proud of Senator Kennedy's tireless work to promote peace in Northern Ireland, to turn the tide of HIV/AIDS, and to extend freedom's bounty to people everywhere.


Ted, you and I have worked together over many, many years on a number of bipartisan projects.  Our country and the international community have benefited greatly from your knowledge, your dedication, and your compassion.  And so it is my privilege, ladies and gentlemen, to introduce a national leader and international statesman, a valued friend of American foreign policy and a good friend of mine, Senator Ted Kennedy.  (Applause.)


Released on December 9, 2003

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