Remarks at the 36th Annual Kennedy Center Honors

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
December 7, 2013

SECRETARY KERRY: Good evening and welcome to the extraordinary eighth floor of the State Department. We are really, really pleased to welcome everybody here tonight for a festive occasion. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is for me to have a, quote, “night-off.” (Laughter.) And yesterday morning, I was in Jerusalem looking at the Old City walls, and today I’m here looking at all of you. Now, you measure that one. (Laughter.)

This really is an extraordinary floor. I just want to say a couple quick words about it. Up on the ceiling here is the great seal of the United States of America. There’s a smaller version of it. I am the custodian, and it is so well custoded, that I can’t tell you where it is. I’ve never seen it. (Laughter.) But – and obviously, I don’t take that home at night. But it is beautiful. This is the Ben Franklin Room, for the fellow there above the fireplace who was America’s first diplomat, and a remarkable man – I might add, raised in Massachusetts. (Laughter.)

The room next door is the Madison Room, but then you have the Monroe Room over here, the Jefferson Room after our first Secretary State. And the room you came in, where we had the receiving line, is the John Quincy Adams Room. And I invite everybody here after the meal and after the honors and when you have a moment to just wander around. There are more than 5,000 artifacts of diplomatic history in these rooms – extraordinary pieces of furniture, paintings, sculptures, silverware. There’s even a coffee pot that was made by Paul Revere himself. There is in the John Quincy Adams Room the desk designed by, used by Thomas Jefferson. And while we’re unable to tell you that he actually signed the Declaration of Independence on it, we do know to a certainty that it was in his apartment in Philadelphia at the time that the 56 signers signed the Declaration. So there is ample room to speculate that indeed, the Declaration was signed there.

But nevertheless, just the genius of his architecture and his creativity is evident in his desk. And on the other side of that desk is the desk on which the Treaty of Paris was signed. And that is the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War, signed by John Adams and John Hay, Ben Franklin. So you get a real touch of our country, and that’s why it is so appropriate for us to be gathered here to celebrate arts and celebrate accomplishment and to have so many distinguished guests, so many that I am not venturing to mention any of your names – (laughter) – except for a couple.

First, I want to recognize David Rubenstein. (Applause.) One of the artifacts that is in the room back there is a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence. And in about – I think it was 1823, John Quincy Adams commissioned some 200 copies to be made. And the 200 copies made were deemed to be original copies. There are only 31 of them now in existence, and David has loaned us one that is there in the room, and it will be copied itself and it will hang in every single embassy and consulate of the United States of America around the world. David, we’re so grateful to you. Thank you. (Applause.)

I’m going to say a little more. I’m going to embarrass him. I’m going to kind of – I’m going to introduce him, but I’m going to introduce him at the end – but I’m going to introduce him now just by saying that he has made a remarkable commitment to renewing some of our capital – our capital’s proudest spaces. And as we speak, the scaffolding is beginning to come down on the Washington Monument, which was damaged during the earthquake, and David is the person who has made the repair of that great monument possible. And – (applause.) I’m proud to say that he has also given great new life to the remarkable living monument that is the Kennedy Center itself. So David, we all appreciate it enormously if for your next project, you could see what you could do about fixing what’s going on in the capital instead. (Applause.)

I also want to thank another great American institution. I know he doesn’t think of himself that way, but Alan Alda, we’re so pleased that you were able to come here and host us tonight. Thank you for doing that. (Applause.)

Away from the bright lights, Alan has committed himself to philanthropy, to scientific research, and to education. And as you all know, on stage and on screen, well he has – I guess we’ve all been privileged to watch him play good guys and bad guys, funny people and serious people. My personal favorite is Alan’s role from West Wing, where he played the presidential nominee, went on to become a Secretary of State. (Laughter.) So Alan, I’m going to be looking to you for some tips after today. (Laughter.)

MR. ALDA: We had a good – great – we had a good dressing room.

SECRETARY KERRY: There you go. (Laughter.) Absolutely.

We are also very honored tonight to be joined by Madam Justice Sonia Sotomayor. (Applause.) I will tell you that – Chris Dodd is here, and Chris, I think, joined me somewhere over here. Chris – we had the pleasure of casting votes for a remarkably accomplished lawyer, also for the first Hispanic to be appointed of the Supreme Court of the United States. And I know Chris will join me in saying that was among our proudest votes cast in the United States Senate. (Applause.)

Thank you, Kennedy Center Honors, for bringing us all together to celebrate the lives and legacy of these five extraordinary Americans – Carlos Santana, Shirley MacLaine, Billy Joel, Herbie Hancock, and Martina Arroyo (inaudible). Each of these five people are individuals who have really lived Nelson Mandela’s words that “there is no passion to be found in playing small.” Through the music and the characters that they have played, they have earned a really special place in our hearts. And as fans of each of their extraordinary contributions to American culture, we are really honored, all of us, to be in the same room with them tonight and be able to celebrate their lives and their contributions to the arts.

We recognize four of our five honorees tonight for their contribution to music. I think it underscores the role, the special role that music plays in all of our lives in different ways, each of us individually. But there isn’t a person here I know who doesn’t have a favorite artist, a favorite song, and doesn’t sign in the shower. A long time ago, I played bass in a band with my high school buddies – garage band, whatever you want to call it. And if you ever heard us play – which you unfortunately still can on YouTube – (laughter) – just look up The Electras. You could well say that my first act of public service was to stop playing any public gigs at all. (Laughter.)

But I want you to know I do still bring my guitar with me on the airplane when I’m flying around the world, and music remains an important touchstone in my life. Many of you remember the songs I played in my rallies during the presidential race. And I want you all to reflect on this: I did spend two years of my life trying to just hear one song – “Hail to the Chief.” We know how that worked out. (Laughter.) But I still get to hear it, just not for me. (Laughter.)

Each year with these two magical days – and they are magical, here in Washington – the Kennedy Center Honors gives us the chance to pause and appreciate the special meaning of the arts in the life and fabric of our nation. The unique quality of the arts to make us laugh and make us cry, to put us for a few minutes or a few hours in someone else’s place or shoes, to embrace different ideas or to visit a different culture, if only in our imagination. Even in our nation’s earliest days, it is interesting that our founders knew then that arts were essential to the future of America. As John Adams said, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy,” in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain. That aspiration is really not unique to America. It is absolutely universal. On my second day as Secretary, I was invited downstairs to the first-floor auditorium to hear a music ensemble that was visiting from Afghanistan, and there were boys and girls – Pashtun and Balochi and Tajik – from every part of Afghanistan communicating in a language of peace and possibilities. This exchange, communication across cultures, through music or any of the arts, this remarkable opportunity which was so special to these young Afghans, is something that we can literally never afford to take for granted here in America.

Too many countries – I’ve been to some of them in recent years, recent months – those who question the powerful with nothing more than their creativity, their voices, their art, are treated in many places as enemies of the state. Some are even locked up and thrown in jail for their expressing themselves through satire or song. But here in America, we bring our greatest artists to the State Department, to the White House, to the Kennedy Center. So tonight is really another reminder of why America is exceptional. (Applause.)

Back when I was – a bunch of us here, I guess – were considerably younger, back in the ‘60s as we boomers like to say, I listened to Bob Dylan sing, “How much do I know, to talk out of turn.” And ever since the tumult of that time, we have had a deeper appreciation of the artists’ job to talk out of turn, to challenge our conventions, our prejudice, our tastes, and to call us to account.

Behind my desk one floor below us, I keep a framed picture of John Lennon and me from an anti-war rally in the 1970s, and I put it there not only because his voice made millions sing along but because he encouraged us to speak up and to imagine a better world. That was President Kennedy’s vision for the arts in America too. And for all the memories of the elegance of Camelot, it’s easy to forget the President Kennedy wanted the arts to be for everyone, not just the elite. President Kennedy listened to Aaron Copeland, yes, but he also liked Mack the Knife. Pablo Casals played the cello at the White House, but in that same room, Chubby Checker performed the twist. And here in this room tonight, we have five artists with many different gifts, each of whom has deeply enriched our nation.

Alan will have more to say about each of them when he presents them with their medallions, but I just want to take a very quick moment to thank each of them. Carlos Santana, thank you for the way that you have brought the mainstream – to the mainstream of America the beauty of Latin culture, rhythms and influences that have always been part of our diverse fabric, but were never so popular until we heard them from your guitar. And we love the music that you make not because it’s Latin but, frankly, because it is so very American.

Shirley MacLaine, thank you first of all for your friendship to Teresa and me, and we have enjoyed that enormously. But thank you for the enjoyment that you have brought to so many through the classic roles in a career with absolutely stunning breadth and length. Of course, I want to remind you all that Shirley got her start in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Trouble With Harry, and I’ve been informed that the Republicans are now making a sequel about the Senate majority leader. (Laughter.) But I got to be serious here. (Laughter.)

Shirley, you’ve really become one of the great actresses of all time. I think everybody here would agree with that. But we honor you also for what you’ve done as an activist, as a thinker, as a person who recognizes responsibility as a citizen, so thank you for all you’ve done for civil rights, ensuring that every American can play a role in our democracy.

Billy Joel, thank you for the voice your music gave to the silent struggles and the hard-won joys of American life. You have shared your quintessentially American songs to sellout crowds across the world, proving how universal our shared aspirations really are. Billy recently inked a deal to play a show a month at Madison Square Garden, and in Boston we call that – and in business, I think they call it a franchise deal. (Laughter.) So as a Celtics and Bruins fan, I cannot help tonight but say how pleased we are that the Garden will finally have a winning franchise here. (Laughter.) The reason I’m doing that is because of Jacoby Ellsbury. I’m really feeling hurt. (Laughter.)

Herbie Hancock, thank you for bringing the best of the Windy City to the world from Chicago, one of the most American of American cities. You’ve transformed one of the most American art forms, jazz, to create completely new sounds and genres of music. You’ve shown that America is richer when we combine and experiment with different styles and listen to different voices.

Martina Arroyo, thank you for the way that you have made classic opera so remarkably real and accessible to a new generation of listeners. The distance between your childhood home in Harlem and the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan were, in truth, much greater than the four miles on the map. But your beautiful voice bridged that distance, and in doing so you showed that American opportunity is never too far out of reach. I recently heard a story about the time that Martina replaced Birgit Nilsson in Aida, to take the lead in Aida. And Arroyo said of her performance, when she was asked afterward, she said, “Nobody replaces Birgit Nilsson. You just sing for her that night.” Well, that graceful answer actually reminds me of what Thomas Jefferson said about arriving in Paris to assume the role of America’s second ambassador to France. And they asked Jefferson, “Is it you, sir, who replaces Dr. Franklin?” And Jefferson replied, “No one can replace him. Sir, I am only his successor.”

The five of our honorees tonight are each of them and all of them together successes to the storied list of extraordinary American artists all who have received this reward and contributed so much to our country, and so many of them are here tonight. They have blazed trails redefining the arts, their arts, and American culture along the way. And they are loved by so many, imitated by some, but never, ever can they be replaced.

Tonight, as in each year that the Kennedy Center honors distinguished American careers, we are reminded that the role of artists can also never be replaced. We will forever rely on musicians, actors, poets, and dreamers, to inspire us, to entertain us, to keep us honest, to challenge us to consider the impossible, and to show that the impossible can actually be achieved. Tonight, we celebrate each of you, stunned by your talent, grateful for your citizenship, and confident that while none of you can be replaced, you have set the standard for American artists to come. Thank you for that. (Applause.)

Now, it is my privilege to quickly introduce you to the chairman of the Kennedy Center, a man who, as you all know, is blessed with an uncanny ability to succeed in everything that he does, and who has achieved a pinnacle in American business which permits him to make choices. A lot of people make very different choices with the choices David has made. But David has decided to give back and to try to make a difference, because he has the ability to do so. He doesn’t hide behind his ability to seclude himself. He’s not living behind a gate. He’s opened his gate to the world, and we are deeply grateful for the fact that he is so engaged and so caring about his country and the world. He is the best of what it means to be a citizen, and I ask him now if he would come up and share some thoughts with all of us. Thank you, David. (Applause.)

PRN: 2013/1541