Remarks at the Kennedy Center Honors Dinner

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Ben Franklin Room
Washington, DC
December 5, 2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, hello and welcome to a typical night at the State Department. (Laughter.) This, my friends, is what foreign policy is all about: great music, high spirits, fun people – extraordinary people, I might add – and everywhere you look there’s a little flash of glamor here. And we love it. Thank you for being here with us tonight, and thank you for coming to honor these five extraordinary recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors.

There are living legends from the performing arts here. There are members of Congress, high government officials, business and professional leaders, and then there’s Stephen Colbert, too. (Laughter and applause.) I am – I’m just lucky; I don’t think he has a role tonight and he can’t pick on me, so I think I’m safe here.

Ladies and gentlemen, as a certain person in American politics would say today, this is “huuuge.” (Laughter.) Almost as tough a ticket to get to as “The Gin Game,” I want you to know. Now, the truth is that the Kennedy Center night is always very special here at Foggy Bottom. But given all that has been written about the connections between politicians and entertainers, and between Washington and Hollywood – when I first hosted this event two years ago, I was sort of questioning how critical all of you might be. And I knew there’d be a critical eye. But I was encouraged when I remembered the results of Fred Astaire’s original screen test: can’t act, slightly bald, can dance a little. (Laughter.) And that assessment inspired me, until Teresa pointed out to me that I have absolutely nothing whatsoever in common with Fred Astaire. (Laughter.) In fact, everybody pointed out to me I have nothing in common with Fred Astaire.

But this beautiful room that we are in tonight is a gift of many donors in our country who have invested in American diplomacy and who have given to us not just the gift of this room but this entire floor, which is our principal entertainment room for dinners. President Xi was here, many other presidents. We’ve had enormous numbers of dinners in this room. And it is named for the fellow in the portrait above the fireplace, Benjamin Franklin, who is desperate for a drink even right now. (Laughter.)

Those of you familiar with Ben’s biography know that he was a very colorful fellow. As a military officer during the French and Indian War, he actually got his troops to attend church by topping off the communion wine with rum. And while still in his 20s, for some reason he drew up a list of euphemisms for getting drunk. He called it being mooneyed, jambled, cherry-merry, hammerish, wamble-cropped – which sounds like gibberish to all of us here tonight, but I think to a drunk Ben Franklin had made a lot of sense, folks. (Laughter.)

I have said before that if Ben Franklin were alive today, there is absolute certainty he could not be confirmed by the United States Senate. (Laughter.) But of course, with his credentials, he would probably get elected to the United States Senate. (Laughter.) That’s another story.

Now, it happens that I spent the first part of this week in a place where Mr. Franklin used to hang out – Paris. And world leaders are gathering there to help save the ultimate work of performing art – our planet. I know that there are some who still insist that rising sea levels are not a big deal, and that’s because in their worldview the extra water will just spill over the sides of a flat Earth. (Laughter.) So let me be clear – let me be clear – (applause) – I go back to Paris, and I think everybody is there with the conviction that a collective failure to act with greater boldness on climate change could turn out to be the single most profound betrayal of one generation, or generations, by another.

The good news is that we do have the time to curb these emissions. We have the technology. We have the knowhow. We’re not sitting here wondering what the solution is; we know what it is. It’s called energy policy. And we have time to limit the damage and seize the environmental and economic benefits of a clean energy future, which is what we are fighting for. What’s for certain is that we can’t delay, and that is why I will leave for Paris after the show tomorrow night to return to the negotiations. As George Lucas taught us, we have to act now because the choice that we face is do or not do. There’s no try here, and we thank Yoda for that wisdom.

Now, one great attribute of the honors weekend is that it invites us to rise above the issues that sometimes divide us. Tonight, this is Washington’s only true politics-free zone. After all, the beauty of a song or a dance does not come with an ideology. There is nothing liberal or conservative about a great actor’s ability to convey emotion. And from the days of Thomas Edison, moving pictures have cast a spell over people of every description.

That is why cultural diplomacy is such an important piece of what we do at the State Department. Communicating our values is at the heart of our mission. And as everyone here knows, there is no more effective a means for communication than the arts. In fact, there are times when art is the only mode of discussion that two sides will actually accept. During the Cold War, we had exchanges with the Soviet Union in which they sent us their Russian-born classical musicians and we sent them our Russian-born classical musicians. (Laughter.) Think about it.

When freedom hung in the balance, there was no better advertisement for the American dream than our immigrants and our refugees. And more recently, the State Department has welcomed artists from Iran. We’ve sent dance troupes to Havana. Americans are teaching creative writing workshops in Venezuela. We dispatched cello players to Kazakhstan, sponsored an event in South Asia that offered Sufi hip hop, and partnered with a group from Casablanca that belts out Moroccan rock and roll. And next spring we’re going to invite musicians from each of Turkey’s many ethnic groups to see what a Turkish-Armenian-Arab-Roma-Kurdish sound might be like.

Now of course, one can argue that progress resulting from a single event or a single exchange is merely incremental. But as we have learned, incremental does not mean insignificant. The difference made in an individual’s outlook can cause a ripple within a community, and a ripple, as we know, can grow into a wave, and a wave into a mighty current that changes the world.

That is why Vaclav Havel called music the enemy of totalitarianism. And that’s why the leader of a Pashtun band said, after playing at the Kennedy Center, “Art is like water for the fire of fundamentalism,” which invites a point that I want to just briefly make, notwithstanding the festive and celebratory concept – nature of our gathering here tonight.

My friends, art looks to the future but it does so while standing on the shoulders of the past. And today we face a determined threat to world peace, to decent people everywhere, and to our shared cultural heritage – a threat that goes by the name of ISIL, or Daesh, as we prefer to call it.

For more than a year, these terrorists have systematically been destroying sites that had been carefully preserved for centuries – art. They’ve blown up mosques, monasteries, churches, and the tombs of prophets. In the ancient city of Palmyra, they not only destroyed the 800-year-old Roman arch and two temples that had been built even earlier, but they beheaded the 83-year-old scholar whose life work was preserving them. Now, some might not see the link between the destruction of culture and the attacks on human beings that Daesh has perpetrated in the Middle East, the streets of Paris, the skies over Egypt and elsewhere, but make no mistake, these crimes are part of the same war on knowledge, on freedom, on creativity, on modernity, on law, on love, on life, and on civilization itself. And as we know or should know, this is not just a Western point of view.

Consider these words from the preamble to the Iraqi constitution: Upon our land, the oldest pact of just governance was inscribed. The saints and companions of the Prophet prayed, philosophers and scientists theorized, and writers and poets excelled. I repeat: writers and poets excelled. Such feelings of authenticity and pride are exactly what the extremists have vowed to destroy. So tonight our message to terrorists everywhere is that no matter how many attacks you attempt, we will not be intimidated, we will not be divided, we will not abandon our values, we will not cease to celebrate beauty, we will not stop until we have stopped you.

My friends, coming back to the important moment of this evening, one of the peculiar aspects of the Kennedy Center Honors is that they give awards for lifetime achievement to artists, most of whom show no signs of slowing down. And obviously, that is something for which we are very grateful. I know the toasts are coming, and I don’t intend to steal Herbie Hancock’s thunder even if I could, but in closing I just want to say a few words of appreciation on behalf of everyone here about our honorees.

Carole King is someone whose music I loved from the time that I was involved in antiwar efforts – 1971 – “Tapestry.” And I loved her even more when she helped me pay off my campaign debt. (Laughter.) Carole – (applause). Carole did not just have a career, she made careers. “Will You [Still] Love Me Tomorrow,” written at the age of 17; “Up on the Roof,” “You’ve Got a Friend”, “Natural Woman”, “I Feel the Earth Move” – extraordinary. Are you kidding me? It’s no wonder that “Beautiful,” the Carol King musical, packed the house on Broadway and here at the Kennedy Center. Teresa and I consider ourselves very lucky that you are a cherished friend and neighbor, and the world is blessed by your passionate commitment to the environment and to so many other great causes. And I think everybody here would say that winter, spring, summer, or fall, in this room, around the world, you have admirers everywhere, all friends. (Applause.)

George Lucas, what can we say? Walk into any bar in the country and you’ll find somebody who looks, laughs, and roars just like Chewbacca. (Laughter.) In fact, I can’t tell you how many rooms when I was running for president that I walked into where it seemed like the entire bar from Star Wars was there, but I will not name the states. (Laughter.) America has a long and extraordinary tradition of storytellers, of tall tales and great adventurers and epic quests, but no one is better at bringing magnificent stories to unforgettable life than George Lucas. And when we’re not among the millions standing in line for his next movie, we’re standing always in awe of his talent. George Lucas, thank you for all you have done. (Applause.)

It has been said that the United States Senate is the world’s most exclusive club, but in fact, it’s the EGOT – those who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. This is a club with just 12 members, folks, and Rita Moreno is the only one who appeared in “Singin’ in the Rain,” and “The King and I,” and “West Side Story,” and “The Glass Menagerie,” and “The Odd Couple,” and she even won an Emmy for “The Muppet Show.” Ms. Moreno, for one – from one electrifying star turn to another, we salute you, and I personally extend to you my very best wishes, because in six days, you and I will celebrate our birthdays together. Actually, I wish it were together. It’s more we will celebrate them on the same day, that’s a better way to put it. (Applause.)

Seiji Ozawa was in Boston so long that he became part of the city’s DNA. He was like Fenway Park with a white turtleneck. What David Ortiz could do with his bat, Seiji could do with his baton. Conducting whole symphonies from memory, lifting spirits, and making classical fans out of people who had grown up singing “Danny Boy” and “Dirty Water,” and he connected the eastern part of Massachusetts with Tanglewood and the western part in a way that had never been done before. Maestro, for being the very best and for sharing with us the very best, thank you. (Applause.)

And finally, we have with us tonight Rebecca Morgan, Jane Pittman, Binta, Coretta Scott King, Harriet Tubman, Carrie Watts, Ophelia Harkness, and Fonsia Dorsey. Add them all up and they can only spell one thing: Cicely Tyson. (Applause.) Cicely, we are so glad that you could break away from your current smash Broadway show to be with us, but the truth is that you and your brilliant performances are always with us. They are as indelible as you are incredible, and we will always be grateful for your dignity and your strength.

My friends, these five extraordinary artists speak to us in ways that only art as a whole can speak to anyone. And one of the great privileges of being Secretary of State is being able to travel the world and see how people everywhere come together. It doesn’t matter whether you live in a big city, a remote village, a mansion, or a hut – music, song, dance, and film have the power to astonish eyes and ears, widen the landscape of our dreams, and move the soul. It is that power that brings us together tonight, to honor it. It is that solidarity with art and with the freedom that enables art that armors us each day as we confront the complexity of a world that once filled with the darkest peril and the brightest wonder. I am confident – better said, I know for certain that we, because of who we are, because of our DNA, will simply never allow that darkness to overcome the light – in the City of Light, in our own home cities and towns or anywhere else, not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

Thank you for being here with us tonight. And now, it is my privilege to yield the floor the energetic, the creative, and the extraordinarily philanthropic chairman of the Kennedy Center, Mr. David Rubenstein. (Applause.)