Remarks by President Biden at the Presentation of the 2021 National Humanities Medals and National Medals of Arts

Published: Wed Mar 22 2023


East Room

4:50 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, hello! (Applause.) Thank you, thank you, thank you. Please - please have a seat.

And, you know, I'm going to say, starting off - and say, "Good evening." I think they thought we'd take longer in the other room. (Laughter.) Good afternoon/evening - close.

Vice President Harris, the Second Gentleman, former President Selina Meyer. (Laughter.)

Welcome to the White House - a sacred place for many reasons. It's a residence for the First Family, but it's really the People's House - and it really is. A place to work, a national park, a museum, as well as an - art and artifacts capturing the soul of our nation for many years.

This past - this - and like this portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart, it's the only object still here since the White House was opened in 1800. That's the only object still here.

And I want you to know an Irishman designed the White House. (Laughter.) True - true story. (Laughter.)

Rescued by Dolley Madison after the British torched this very space, a life-size portrait of our Founding Father, who, in the midst of a war of independence, wrote a letter to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which had recently made him a member.

General Washington wrote, and I quote, "The arts and sciences [are] essential to the prosperity of the State and...the ornament and happiness of human life."

He knew the greatness of a nation was measured not only by the strength of its army and the vastness of its geography, the size of its economy, it was also measured in the vitality of its culture - and the culture forged in the freedom of expression to speak and to think freely.

Freedoms that must always be defended for democracy is a covenant - a covenant we have with each other. And I don't know how many times in graduate school and undergraduate school I learned that democracy has to be fought for for every generation. We learned that this year. It has to be fought.

Democracy is a choice. It's a choice we make to choose union over disunion, progress over chaos, and literally truth over lies; a choice to remember history, not erase it, no matter how hard it is that people try to sometimes erase it.

And that's what great nations do: They face reality. We're a nation - a great nation in large part because of the power of the arts and humanities that's stamped into the DNA of America.

And today, Jill and I, Kamala and Doug, and all of you - we continue the legacy by awarding two of our nation's highest honors to 23 extraordinary Americans: the National Medal of Arts to honor outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth support, and availability of the arts in the United States; and the National Humanities Medal to honor those who have - whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, philosophy, and so many other subjects.

And, by the way, I'm married to an English professor. (Laughter.) And we know good writing and love a great - of a great read, including the incredible writers here today.

The work of our honorees is as diverse as the nation that celebrates with them today. But - but common threads weave them together in many ways in the very fabric of America: the pursuit of excellence, the drive to create, the yearning to connect, and the boldness to be truthtellers, bridge builders, and change seekers.

Above all, you're masters of your craft. You're masters of your craft.

The National Medal of the Arts recipients include renowned painters like Judy Baca and - who has made a canvas out of our - out of communities all across America, especially her beloved Los Angeles. Her groundbreaking murals depict the strength and scope of human nature and tell the forgotten stories - tell the forgotten stories, bringing public space to life and tell the - and tell a fuller story of who we are as Americans.

A student - you know, and, Antonio, you studied diplomacy. When I heard that, I thought maybe we'd make you Secretary of State. (Laughter.) But today he's one of Puerto Rico's greatest cultural ambassadors. His work challenges and unites people across languages, classes, and generations. His - his creations span genres - painting, writing, sculpture, theater design. Always daring to try something new while building on what came before.

And my friend, President Julia Louis-Dreyfus. (Laughter.) I know where you are. (Laughter.) She's over here going, "I'm over here." No, I want to - I'm going to talk with Julia later about whether she liked being VP or President better. I got to figure that one out. (Laughter.)

I have absolutely no talent at all. None. And you won. (Laughter.) I don't know how the hell that happened. Eleven Emmy's. Twenty-six nominations. Honored numerous times by the Screen Actors Guild, Producers Guild, Critics' Choice. She embraces life's absurdity with absolute wit and handles real-life turns with absolute grace. A mom, a cancer survivor, a pioneer for women in comedy, she is an American original. Good to see you.

Following her example, including Mindy Kaling. You know, from Massachusetts, but as we all know, Scranton, Pennsylvania, made her who she is. (Laughter.) Or as we say in Scranton, "Scran-en," Pennsylvania. (Laughter.)

The first woman of color to create, write, and star in a primetime sitcom, she empowers a new generation to tell their stories with their own irreverence and sincerity. The daughter of Indian immigrants -

We know about that, right? Our Vice President is a daughter of Indian immigrants - a mother who was a great scientist.

Above all, she's hardworking and an adoring mom, just like her own mom was. And, Mindy, we know your mom is always with you in your spirit. We know that.

Over 50 years ago, the Billie Holiday Theatre opened in Brooklyn. Black writers and actors from Samuel L. Jackson to Debbie Allen to Smokey Robinson debuted there in New York at that theater. Today Billie still stages first-rate theater productions, nurturing new generations of Black playwrights, performers as a culture of the cornerstone of our nation. And it's really - it's an incredible place.

The same is true with the International Association of the Black - Blacks in Dance. Founded more than three decades ago to build solidarity for this vital art form, it connects dances to teach, performances to venues, educators to resources - driven by the mission of preserving dance from the African diaspora for future generations.

When it comes to fashion, here's what I know. As I said today when I said, "Every time I open the closet, I see her," when I got introduced to Vera. (Laughter.) And Ji- - and Jill turned to me and said, "What are you saying that for?" (Laughter.) It's all those labels. (Laughter.) "Vera Wang."

Where is Vera? There you are. (Laughter.) You knew what I meant to begin with, didn't you? At the - well, I guess I could have said it a little better. "When I open the closet, I see you all the time." But at any rate - (laughter) -

You're one of the greats, Vera. You really are. And I know your dresses always look beautiful on my wife, God love her. (Laughter.) Your designs are timeless. Her vision, her influence in industry. Her business became an empire. A name that's synonymous with artistry, excellence: Vera Wang.

Ladies and gentlemen, Fred Eychaner. Supporting the arts is a calling. For decades, he's been a top patron of dance companies, art museums, historic preservation - especially in his beloved Chicago.

By the way, I sat for - every time I sat here for eight years as Vice President, it always started "Chicago." (Laughter.) Chicago.

He's also been a champion for the LGBTQ community at its core of our national values of freedom, justice - and justice for all.

Because he never seeks the spotlight, few know how much he has enriched their lives. But now, the nation is going to know whether you like it or not. It's happening. (Laughter.)

The contribution of Joan Shi- - Shi- -

MS. SHIGEKAWA: Shigekawa.

THE PRESIDENT: Shigekawa. Thank you. (Laughter.) I have trouble pronouncing. You can call me "Bid-en." (Laughter.)

Shigekawa. Your contributions to art in America is legendary and is lasting. And the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, she's lifted rural and urban artists, created programs for military families, and helped measure how the art grows the economy - arts grow the economy. And she proves that art makes our country stronger.

He couldn't be with us today because he's touring, but he's still - we still honor a son of Puerto Rico and Spanish Harlem, Josť Feliciano. I can pronounce it. That's my generation. (Applause.)

Josť was - came from a small family - one of 11 brothers. (Laughter.) Blind since birth, he picked up a guitar at age 9. A pioneering art- - artist bridging cultures and styles, winning Grammys, and opening doors for generations of Latino artists and the heart of our nation.

Last Deme- - December, Gladys Knight, who - I'm crazy about her music; I don't want to hurt her reputation - sat in this room to receive the Kennedy Center Honor. Later that night, Jill and I, and Kamala and Doug, and a theater full of fans showed our appreciation for the "Empress of Soul." The "Empress of Soul."

A few weeks later, we invited Gladys back to the White House to perform at a summit with leaders from 50 African nations, as I honored the African nation presidents and prime ministers. But what better way to show who we are as a nation than to give Gladys Knight an opportunity to sing for the nation?

Gladys, as I said before, you're truly one of the best things ever to happen, in terms of music. I'm a fan. (Applause.)

And speaking of good things in music, "The Boss" is here. (Applause.) "The Boss" is here. As they in South Philly and North Wilmington, a "Joi-sey" boy. (Laughter.)

I just want you to know, Bruce, there was a lawsuit that was between the governor of Delaware and the governor of New Jersey, and it's now a matter of law. We owe - we own - Delaware owns the Delaware River to the high-water mark in New Jersey. (Laughter.) So, for all I know, I can claim you as part of Delaware before - (laughter) -

Bruce Springsteen - a poet, troubadour, a chronicler of American life and resilience and hope and dreams. Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom along with 20 Grammys, an Oscar, a Tony, and an unyielding love from millions of fans across generations.

The New Jersey kid is back on tour, approaching - catch this - 3,000 concerts around the world. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. (Laughter.)

Since his first performance as a teenager at the local Elks Lodge - and I know where it is - Freehold, New Jersey. Just across the river. (Laughter and applause.) I've been to Freehold. And I married a "Joi-sey" girl. (Laughter.) Okay?

Bruce, some people are just "Born to Run," man. (Laughter.)

Last fall, during a White House event called "A Night When Hope and History Rhyme," I awarded the National Humanities Medal to Sir Elton John on the occasion of his final tour in Washington. Today, we add to that distinguished list of award- - him be- - receiving this award as well.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Amy Tan's books capture the courage, the pain, and the joy - and the joy - of the immigra- - of the immigrant experience, and how their legacy and memory fulfill the promise of America for all Americans.

Colson Whitehead, one of the first and only novelists to win the Pulitzer Prize for back-to-back works. How in the hell did you do that? (Applause.) That's - where is he? Pretty good, man. (Laughter.) I'm kind of looking for back-to-back myself. (Laughter and applause.) But I - but I may have to do it in "The Underground Railroad" - (laughter) - with the "Nickel Boys." Incredible, man. That's pretty damn impressive. (Laughter.)

From coming-of-age, to crime, to science fiction, to even zombies, he's one of America's great storytellers, bringing fresh perspective to the legacy of the original sin of slavery, elevating our nation's consciousness around truth and justice.

You know, to understand the giants of history, we need, sometimes, to write about them. That's Walter Isaacson. Walter, you're the best, pal. Walter's biographies on Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and more make real some of the most complex minds in our nation's history. By better understanding figures like these, we better understand ourselves and our nation and the notion of possibilities. Anything is possible here. Anything is possible in America.

An engineer, poet, Cuban American, Richard Blanco returned to a poem he wrote from the Second Inaugural of Barack and me, a poem, "One Today." It says: "And always one moon like a silent drum tapping [at] every rooftop and every window" on every - in - of every county - country. Excu- - let me start this over again. (Laughter.) I'm getting so intimidated by being here. (Laughter.)

"And always one moon like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop and every window, of one country" - county - county - "all of us facing the stars; hope-a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it-together."

You know, that's what we - you know, hope is a - I was once asked by Xi Jinping to define America, for real. We were in a Tibetan Plateau. I said, "Possibilities. Hope. That's the definition of America." And you write about it.

His poetry bridges cultures and languages - a mosaic of our past, our present, and our future - reflecting a nation that is hectic, colorful, and still becoming.

Few books captivated the nation like Tara Westover's memoir "Education" - "The Educated," excuse me - "Educated." Her words remind us how national divides can also divide families and how bringing [bridging] those divides with knowledge and understanding is critical to our country and for one another.

Ann Patchett's celebrated novels and essays are treasured worldwide. Through every- - through everything she does on the page and at her Nashville bookstore - a magnet for readers all around the world - she proves the power of the written word to bring people together. And you've done it, Ann. Where is Ann sitting? There you go. You've done it, kiddo.

Every day, from a studio in New Mexico, "Native America Calling" airs a podcast, live radio show exploring everything from the legacy of Native newspapers to Native cuisine to Native American solidarity with Ukraine, capturing the vastness of the Native American life and its profound impact on the country.

You know, Henrietta Mann as a teacher, a scholar, and a leader, she's dedicated her career to Native American education and to establishing the field of Native American studies.

Thanks in large part to her, Native American studio [studies] is now taught in universities across the country, strengthening our nation-to-nation bonds for generations to come.

A scholar, Earl Lewis chronicles African American history and explores how diversity strengthens our nation. And it does strengthen our nation. As a university administrator, he has shaped some of our preeminent institutions, pushing them to meet the challenges of our time - from water scarcity, to the future of work, to racial injustice. He makes American universities an even more important source of our national dynamism.

And an - as an anthropologist, the first Black woman president of Spelman College - pretty cool - (laughter) - and the director of the National Museum of African Art, you know, Johnetta is - Cole - takes the study of Black history and culture to new heights.

She has strengthened American education, advanced American scholarship, and enriched the lives of students of all ages and the future of our nation.

Bryan Stevenson - a cherished son of my home state of Delaware - (applause) - and one of the most important civil rights leaders. You know, exonerating the wrongfully convicted. Funding [founding] the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice so the history of lynching and racial violence in America gets the reckoning it deserves. And providing a compelling foundation for me to be able to sign into law the Emmett Till's (inaudible) to make lynching a federal crime.

Bryan - (applause) - Bryan does it all - challenges us to get proximity to the suffering and abandoned and the poor and the condemned so that as we search for the humanity in others, we find it within ourselves first.

Ladies and gentlemen, please congratulate our newest recipients of the National Medal of the Arts and the National Humanities Medal. (Applause.)

To you and your families - to you and your families, congratulations. Thank you for cultivating the arts as an essential source - please have a seat - (laughter) - source of our prosperity, our happiness in American life, as George Washington described. Thank you for strengthening the covenant that this is our - that is our democracy.

And now, please come up one by one as my military aide, Major Hughes, reads your citation.

And, by the way, I want to warn you: There are two types. There - the medals are beautiful. The ribbons are hung on. One doesn't separate. So, any woman who I'm giving the one medal to, just don't get angry with me if I mess up your hair. (Laughter.) Okay?

You think I'm kidding. I'm not. All right. (Laughter.)

MILITARY AIDE: Judith Francisca Baca. (Applause.)

For her monumental impact on public art in America. Judith Francisca Baca's collaborative work has turned forgotten histories into public memory, pioneering an art form that empowers communities to reclaim public space with dignity and pride.

(The National Medal of Arts is presented.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: I think this weighs more than the first prize at the Olympics. (Laughter.)

MILITARY AIDE: Accepting on behalf of The Billie Holiday Theatre, Blondel Pinnock. (Applause.)

For being an artistic jewel for the nation. Channeling its namesake's exploration of freedom and identity, The Billie Holiday Theatre cultivates some of our nation's most renowned Black actors, writers, designers, and musicians, and has expanded the reach of American artistic expression and achievement.

(The National Medal of Arts is presented.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: (Inaudible.) (Laughter.)

MILITARY AIDE: Fred Eychaner. (Applause.)

For his unwavering courage and support of the arts as a force for a more just nation. From dance and architecture to arts education and a lifetime of LGBTQI+ advocacy, Fred Eychaner has helped give millions of people strength to be themselves and moved our country forward.

(The National Medal of Arts is presented.) (Applause.)

Accepting on behalf of the International Association of Blacks in Dance, Denise Saunders Thompson. (Applause.)

For expanding our nation's appreciation for the practice and preservation of dance from the African diaspora. Through teaching, training, performance, the International Association of Blacks in Dance promotes dance by people of African ancestry and origin, explores and exchanges art, spans cultures and generations, and enriches the dance culture of America.

(The National Medal of Arts is presented.) (Applause.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Amen. (Laughter.)

MILITARY AIDE: Mindy Kaling. (Applause.)

For giving voice to a new generation of storytellers. Imbued with humor and heart, Mindy Kaling's work across television, film, and books inspires and delights, capturing and uplifting the experiences of women and girls across our nation.

(The National Medal of Arts is presented.) (Applause.)

Gladys Knight. (Applause.)

For her iconic voice as the Empress of Soul. Gladys Knight's exceptional talent influenced musical genres, from rhythm and blues to gospel to pop, and inspired generations of artists, captivated by her soundtrack of a golden age in American music.

(The National Medal of Arts is presented.) (Applause.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Amen. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: That was one of the Pips. (Laughter.)

MILITARY AIDE: Julia Louis-Dreyfus. (Applause.)

For her humor and wit that has helped to redefine American culture. As one of the most decorated comedic actors of our time, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has blazed a trail for women in comedy and across American life through her commitment to excellence and the power of her example.

(The National Medal of Arts is presented.) (Applause.)

Antonio Martorell-Cardona. (Applause.)

For a lifetime of vision and candor as an artistic communicator, convener, and voice of conscience. Transcending generation and genre, Antonio Martorell-Cardona's art exposes hard truths with whimsy and color to help us remember and grow as people and as a nation.

(The National Medal of Arts is presented.) (Applause.)

Joan Shigekawa. (Applause.)

For a lifetime of service to art in America. Throughout her career, Joan Shigekawa has championed artists, created global exchanges, and promoted the power of the arts to heal, build strong economies, and help people and nations reach their full potential.

(The National Medal of Arts is presented.) (Applause.)

Bruce Springsteen. (Applause.)

For his extraordinary contributions to the American songbook and for being "The Boss." (Laughter.) One of our greatest performers and storytellers, Bruce Springsteen's music celebrates our triumphs, heals our wounds, and gives us hope, capturing the unyielding spirit of what it means to be American.

(The National Medal of Arts is presented.) (Applause.)

Vera Wang. (Applause.)

For her pioneering vision, which has reshaped fashion and business in America. From the runway to red carpets to retail stores, Vera Wang's modern designs and bridal collections express individualism and elegance, making beauty and style accessible to all.

(The National Medal of Arts is presented.) (Applause.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Amen. (Laughter.)

MILITARY AIDE: National Humanities Medal recipients.

Richard Blanco. (Applause.)

For breathing life into the identity and idea of America. An award-winning poet and author, professor and public speaker, and son of Cuban immigrants, Richard Blanco's powerful storytelling challenges the boundaries of culture, gender, and class while celebrating the promise of our nation's highest ideals.

(The National Humanities Medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Johnnetta Betsch Cole. (Applause.)

For being a celebrated leader of sanctuaries of higher learning and culture. A scholar, anthropologist, and academic pace-setter, Johnnetta Betsch Cole's pioneering work about the ongoing contributions of Afro-Latin, Caribbean, and African communities have advanced American understanding of Black culture and the necessity and power of racial inclusion in our nation.
(The National Humanities Medal is presented.) (Applause.)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Amen. (Laughter.)

MILITARY AIDE: Walter Isaacson. (Applause.)

For chronicling the history and genius of America. Through the stories of our nation's remarkable citizens, Walter Isaacson's work, words, and wisdom bridge divides between science and the humanities and between opposing philosophies, elevating discourse and our understanding of who we are as a nation.

(The National Humanities Medal is presented.) (Applause.)

(Mr. Isaacson jokingly begins to walk away and then returns.) (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Maybe he didn't want a picture. (Laughter.)

MILITARY AIDE: Earl Lewis. (Applause.)

For writing America's history and shaping America's future. As a social historian and academic leader, Earl Lewis has made vital contributions to the field of Black history, educating generations of students while also being a leading voice for greater diversity in academia and our nation.

(The National Humanities Medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Henrietta Mann. (Applause.)

For dedicating her life to strengthening and developing Native American education. The pioneering efforts of Henrietta Ho'oesto'oona'e Mann led to programs and institutions across the country devoted to the study of Native American history and culture, honoring ancestors that came before and benefiting generations that follow.

(The National Humanities Medal is presented.) (Applause.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Amen.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Amen. (Laughter and applause.)

MILITARY AIDE: Accepting on behalf of "Native America Calling," Jaclyn Sallee. (Applause.)

For connecting Tribal and non-Tribal communities across the United States. Through its interactive shows on the radio and online, "Native America Calling" educates the American public about Indigenous issues while preserving Indigenous history and culture to honor their contributions that strengthen the sacred Nation-to-Nation relationship.

(The National Humanities Medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Ann Patchett. (Applause.)

For putting into words the beauty, pain, and complexity of human nature. With her best-selling novels and essays, and her bookstore, readers from around the world see themselves in the pages of Ann Patchett's books that take people to places of the heart and feed the imagination of our nation.

(The National Humanities Medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Bryan Stevenson. (Applause.)

For his moral call to redeem the soul of our nation. An advocate fighting tirelessly for the poor, incarcerated, and condemned, Bryan Stevenson follows the Book of Micah's instructions to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly as he chronicles the legacy of lynching and racism in America, shining a light on what has been and all that we can be as a nation.

(The National Humanities Medal is presented.) (Applause.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Amen.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Amen. (Laughter and applause.)

MILITARY AIDE: Amy Tan. (Applause.)

For expanding the American literary canon. By bravely exploring experiences of immigrant families, heritage, memories, and poignant struggles, Amy Tan's writing makes sense of the present through the past and adds groundbreaking narrative to the diverse sweep of American life and literature.

(The National Humanities Medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Tara Westover. (Applause.)

For turning American life into literature. Tara Westover's memoirs of family, religion, and the transformative power of education has moved millions of readers and served as a powerful example of how the humanities can set people free and a nation free.

(The National Humanities Medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Colson Whitehead. (Applause.)

For his truth-seeking as an American literary icon. With genre-defying craftsmanship and creativity, Colson Whitehead's celebrated novels make real the African American journey through our nation's continued reckoning with the original sin of slavery and our ongoing march toward a more perfect Union.

(The National Humanities Medal is presented.) (Applause.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Amen. (Laughter and applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: What do I do now? (Laughter.)

Well, everybody, I - I hope you - you enjoyed today. Just - it was just such an honor to meet so many incredible people, really and truly. You're amazing. And you do make the country better. You make us a better place. (Applause.) You make us a better place.

And now there's going to be a reception at the - the other end of the hall, in the dining room down there. I hope we'll see you down there.

And as - every time I'd walk out of my grandpop's home up in Scranton, Pennsylvania - Ambrose Finnegan - he'd say, "Joey, keep the faith." And my grandmother would go, "No, spread it." (Laughter.) Let's spread the faith. Thank you. (Applause.)

5:33 P.M. EDT

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