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Remarks at the Kennedy Center Honors Dinner

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Benjamin Franklin Room
Washington, DC
December 6, 2008

SECRETARY RICE: Good evening. (Applause.) Good evening. Well, thank you very much, and I welcome you to the State Department and to the glorious Benjamin Franklin Room. It is my – (applause) – you’re welcome.

It’s really my great pleasure to once again host this esteemed group. I’d like to thank Steve Schwarzman, the Chairman of the Kennedy Center. (Applause.) Steve, of course, is a tremendous supporter of the arts and of the Kennedy Center in particular. Our nation has really been enriched by your dedication and commitment to the arts, and I want to thank you and Christine for the years of service and for our years of service together. Thank you. (Applause.)

I’d like to welcome the members of the Kennedy family who are here with us today. For more than three decades, the Kennedy Center Honors has recognized the greatest achievements in American arts, and this year’s recipients, each in his or her own way, has left an indelible mark on the arts through work in theater, in film, in music, and in dance. And it is my privilege to welcome each of you tonight.

Morgan Freeman. (Applause.) Your groundbreaking contributions to the silver screen have placed you alongside Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy and Paul Newman for characterizations that capture the strength and the gentleness of the human spirit. You won the hearts of millions of children early on with "The Electric Company," and for many of us, the spellbinding performances in "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Million Dollar Baby" represented the highest achievement in acting: the ability to simply bring a character to life. I, however, remember "Deep Impact." (Laughter.) And I know that when you played the African American president of the United States, most people thought that would happen when a comet hit the United States of America. (Laughter.) (Applause.) But wonders of wonders, fiction has become truth.

George Jones. (Applause.) You have been one of country music’s brightest stars over the course of your career. In fact, I hear that you’re a favorite on what we around here call the First iPod, used by a fellow Texan in the White House. (Laughter.) Your song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," is one of the most memorable songs in country music history, capturing the balance of hard-learned truths and bittersweet irony that is the soul of country music. In more than five decades of making music, no one’s going to fill your shoes. (Applause.)

Barbra Streisand. (Applause.) Your prominence in music and theater and film and radio and television as an artist, as a writer, as a director, as a producer, has been legendary and inspirational. You are an amazing talent and a trailblazer, and you’ve been an inspiration to many and particularly to women in the arts. From your earliest work, "My Name Is Barbra," you established yourself as an incomparable talent with a voice so powerful that Judy Garland once praised you as one of the last great belters, a unique vocalization that, it has been said, makes every song sound like a well-written three act play performed stunningly in three minutes. (Applause.)

Twyla Tharp. (Applause.) You are one of the most highly regarded choreographers of our time with credits that include work with the Royal Ballet, the New York City Ballet, and the Martha Graham Dance Company. With the release in 1973 of "Deuce Coupe" set to the music of the Beach Boys, you enlivened the world of dance with the musical influences of rock and roll, making it accessible to millions. And by setting modern dance to music as varied as Billy Joel and Bob Dylan and Bach, you have set yourself apart as a distinct class and an innovative choreographer. You are an original. (Applause.)

Peter Townshend. (Applause.) As part of one of the greatest and loudest rock bands of all times, you have thrilled us with more than four decades and wowed audiences worldwide. Rolling Stone magazine ranked you as one of the greatest guitarists ever, and it’s no wonder that your electrifying guitar riffs and soulful songwriting have made you best at talking about your generation. (Applause.)

Roger Daltry. (Applause.) It has been said that you made your first guitar from a block of wood, and I would dare say that nothing’s been the same in the music world since then. Combining the words rock and opera, "Tommy" transformed the genre, blending the structure of operatic storytelling with the vibrancy of rock. And I would imagine that every rock artist who has ever swung a microphone on stage and done it well owes credit to you. Together, as part of The Who, you and Pete revolutionized the landscape of music and forever have made it a part of our hearts. (Applause.)

I really want to thank all of the honorees for their tremendous contributions. The measure of their work is seen in years and years – has been seen for years and will be seen for years to come, not just in the United States but across the globe.

The Kennedy Center Honors has been one of my favorite events since becoming Secretary of State, because it’s time to celebrate the way -- and the many ways in which art and music bind us together not just as Americans, but as a broader human community. We may speak different languages, come from different cultures, hail from different lands, but we share the same fundamental ideals and aspirations: to make the world a better place with our own unique contributions. And for our very talented recipients tonight, that is through the arts.

History has shown us that the arts flourish most when they are practiced in democracies. Indeed, throughout history, there have been many attempts by totalitarians and tyrants to control the arts. And one wonders why they cared so much what artists did. Well, they cared because they understood the power of the arts. They understood the power of the arts to give expression to the human spirit, to give expression to human freedom, to give expression to human will.

I salute each of you because your work in the arts gives birth to innovation and to creativity and, in many ways, to freedom and justice and equality. Your work moves something within each of us to want to do more and to be better. And so it is especially fitting that in this great room named after America’s great founder, Benjamin Franklin, we honor these great artists who have honored us with their talent, their creativity, and their ability to make the human spirit soar.

I remember a very nice line from "The Way We Were" when, Barbra Streisand, you turned to Robert Redford, better known as Hubbel Gardiner, and you said, “Commencement, what a funny thing to call the end.” This is my commencement. It’s been an honor to host this event for four years. It’s been an honor to serve our great country. And it is an honor always to be in the company of great artists and great friends. Thank you. (Applause.)


Released on December 8, 2008

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