“Historically, this has been a much more staid affair,” said President Obama in the East Room of the White House, where he welcomed 22 artists, writers, dancers, scholars, singers, a chef, and a radio host to receive the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of the Arts.
The crowd of friends and admirers of the honorees applauded loudly, which the president, in part, blamed on the first recipient, Mel Brooks (medals were given alphabetically). Brooks pretended to pull down Obama’s pants when he was in front of the crowd.
“Along with Mel, we have an impressive crew with us today,” said Obama. “We have Terry Gross, and a whole bunch of people Terry has interviewed.”
Twelve of the recipients have appeared, at one time or another and often several times, on WHYY’s “Fresh Air,” which Gross has hosted since 1975.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of people in the room long distance, but not met them in person,” said Gross after the ceremony. “The interviews are usually from a remote studio. I’ve interviewed Mel Brooks two or three times, never met him in person before. Phillip Glass, same thing, never met him in person before. Isabel Wilkerson, Ron Chernow.”
Everyone honored at the ceremony is accustomed to accolades; they are at the top of their respective careers and often recognized as such. But to be officially acknowledged by the president, backed by the pomp of the White House, is truly rare.
“What a great occasion to meet them!” said Gross. “We’re all so excited by the occasion, we’re all having a great time talking to each other.”
During the formal ceremony it was Brooks who first broke rank; after Berry Gordy, the co-founder of Motown Records, received his medal, Brooks stood to shake his hand.
The two dozen honorees are determined by the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. Two were absent from the event: jazz musician Wynton Marsalis could not make it, and actor Morgan Freeman “is undoubtedly playing a black president again,” said Obama. “He never lets me have my moment.”
The 24 were chosen because they possess “a gift for creative empathy,” said Obama. “All of us have a story to tell. Even when you think your story is too strange, too different, too unique, there is someone out there who has been waiting their whole life to hear you tell your story, because it’s just like theirs.”
Gross was accompanied by the longtime “Fresh Air” director Roberta Shorrock and executive producer Danny Miller, who was awed by being invited into the White House.
“I’d been outside the White House as a protester during my high school days,” said Miller, who grew up in Washington, D.C. “This is really a thrill.”
The gravitas of the White House was likewise not lost on Gross. “This is pretty special,” she said. “[Obama] told me back when he could drive — before he was president — he used to listen to ‘Fresh Air’ in the car. That was pretty thrilling.”