Kennedy Center Honors Remarks

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
December 3, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Hello, everybody. (Applause.) Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very, very much. Welcome. Welcome to the Ben Franklin Room of the State Department. Welcome to this very celebratory evening. It’s a special evening for all of us. Whether you come from afar or you live in Washington, tonight is special and it is wonderful for me to be able to be here hosting Saturday Night Live for the fourth time. (Laughter.) I’m really happy. (Applause.)

So tonight and tomorrow are two very special moments in the best tradition of the Kennedy Center Honors. And we are very, very privileged to have five legendary artists, none of whom will be asked to do a blessed thing. (Laughter.) All they need to do is sit and listen, which, in Washington, makes them absolutely unique. (Laughter.)

One of those legends is my good friend of many years, James Taylor, who has touched people the world over. He’s sold more than a hundred million albums with such hits as Fire and Rain and Carolina On My Mind and – yes, indeed. (Applause.) And like James, I played guitar, in my case, with a high school rock band, The Electras. I actually played for James once at our house in Boston. It was the last time. (Laughter.) But the similar – you can actually go on YouTube and look up John Kerry and The Electras and you’ll see some of the covers that we did. (Laughter.) And Ringo Starr, forgive me, I apologize. (Laughter.) But the similarity is really striking because James and I, each in our own way, made people weep. (Laughter.) And in addition to the honor that he receives tonight, James has five Grammy awards, which means combined, we have five Grammy awards. (Laughter.)

Now, one of the reasons that we all love the Kennedy Center Honors is that particularly this year, the discussion of politics is absolutely prohibited – (laughter) – partisan-free zone. I’m only kidding, I know. (Laughter.) Poor Kevin Spacey sat there and said, “God, all my material, I have to throw it out now.” (Laughter.) But we’ll wait for Kevin to regale you with an appropriate sense of the moment. I do speak for everyone, though, I know, in saying how relieved we are that the 2016 presidential election campaign is finally over and the next one will not start until Monday. (Laughter.)

Now, I don’t know how many of you noticed, but just a few weeks ago, there was an epic musical festival that took place out in California featuring such remarkable, up-and-coming acts as Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Neil Young, which prompts me not to brag that my generation – and for many of you here, our generation – had the best music. I’m just going to tell you the truth and state unequivocably our generation had the best music. That’s our – (applause) – and if you have any doubts, just consider the fact that James Taylor sang at President Barack Obama’s second inaugural while Mavis Staples, who just got off a tour with Dylan, sang at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. So, folks – (applause) – folks, this is a generation of artists, and they have guests here who are among that pantheon, who have regaled and mesmerized the world for half a century based on the revolutionary principle that you can’t trust anyone over 30. (Laughter.)

So what these five honorees have achieved really reminds us again and again that the performing arts are much more than a vehicle for escapism. These artists don’t just entertain. I think you will agree with me they transform. And I venture there isn’t anyone among us for whom a song, a scene, or a performance hasn’t moved us so much that it became a part of our lives, a part of who we are, and a part of what we celebrate about America.

This audience knows better than most that art is a reflection of our national journey. And in America’s case, it happens to express the full breadth of our energy, our optimism, our resilience. And that, my friends, I assure you, as Secretary of State, is an indispensible diplomatic asset, because when people overseas look at us, they can’t help but see in our artists a part of themselves or as they wish to be. And in some cases, they see or they feel a touch of the freedom and the artistic expression to which they can only aspire. There are a lot of people around the globe who may not always agree with our policies. But I’ll tell you this: They give us the benefit of the doubt because of the quality and incredible diversity of our performing artists. In other words, whatever else they may think sometimes about us, they can’t possibly believe that the birthplace of blues, soul, jazz, rap, Godfather, Hotel California, is anything other than the product of a great, great country. (Applause.)

So that is why, literally, here at the State Department, we have made cultural diplomacy so much a part of what we do. It’s a way of communicating to others in a language that people are highly receptive to hearing. After all, the performing arts speak a universal language, and if we need any further evidence, we only have to contemplate the careers of the artists and groups that we recognize this evening.

Martha Argerich was born in Buenos Aires, but when she was 14 years old – just 14 years old – she studied piano with the famous composer Friedrich Gulda in Austria. Now, Gulda recognized that Martha was a precocious student, so during one lesson, he challenged her to learn Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit and Schumann’s Abegg Variations in five days. For those of you who work here at the State Department, that would be like memorizing the entire 159 pages of the Iran deal in all original six languages. (Laughter.) But Martha returned to Gulda right on time and she played both pieces flawlessly, which leads me to believe that we should have given ourselves the same deadline to reach a deal in Vienna. (Laughter.) Martha, for bringing out the full beauty in every musical composition that you play, we are deeply grateful. We also honor the Eagles. (Applause.)

We also honor the Eagles, each and every one, with obviously a very special nod to the life and the work of the late Glenn Frey. If you’ve listened to Already Gone or Tequila Sunrise, you knew Glenn Frey and you really did love and revere him. After all, what’s not to love about a guy who said, “Hey, I didn’t make a big deal out of Hotel California; the 18 million people that bought it did.” (Applause.) And whether they were urging us to “Take It Easy” or easing our “Heartache Tonight,” the Eagles helped our spirits to soar. And Glenn wasn’t just a brilliant musician. He was also a student of the art, familiar with every tradition, who once told Vanity Fair that he, quote, “read the backs of the albums like they were the Dead Sea Scrolls.” And if you’ll permit me, I want to personally thank Don Henley for his friendship and his citizenship as well as his artistry. Don performed on my behalf several times, literally came to my rescue on campaign deficit reduction efforts and other such trivial items of running for office. And I want to share with you that he has a very special passion for Henry David Thoreau and Walden Woods, and that inspired him, this kid from Texas, to create a remarkable institution in my home state in honor of Thoreau and Walden Woods, and it wouldn’t be there without Don Henley. (Applause.) So to Don Henley, to Joe Walsh, to Tim Schmit, and to the late Glenn Frey, thank you for your matchless contributions to American music.

Now, what accolades have not been said about Al Pacino? I almost was going to say, “What hasn’t been said about Al Pacino,” but I want to be careful. (Laughter.) He really seems to have commanded the stage and the screens for all of our lives. And back when we were protesting the war in Vietnam, to paraphrase Michael Corleone, we all knew it was dangerous to be honest men. As Secretary, I watch Any Given Sunday – and I have a couple times – and I remind myself that life is, in fact, just a game of inches. Al Pacino plunges so deeply into his roles that – whether he’s playing a gangster, a lieutenant colonel, a cop, a lover, a football coach, or a bank robber with issues – (laughter) – the personalities that he creates are as real as Falstaff, Iago, or Richard III. His career is inseparable from that of American film, but perhaps his most lasting legacy, in fact, comes from a role that he plays in life, and that is that of a fierce advocate for the arts. Al once said that “it’s easy to fool the eye, but it’s hard to fool the heart.” So, Al, thank you for sharing your heart and your genius with us for so many years and thank you for setting up your own receiving line out there after you wave goodbye. (Laughter.) I appreciate that very much. (Applause.)

Now, I first heard the Staples Singers perform Freedom’s Highway alongside Martin Luther King, and obviously I am dating myself, but I’ve never forgotten. In a career spanning more than seven decades, Mavis Staples took the stage at the inauguration of JFK and she sang I’ll Take You There for President Obama and the First Family at the White House. Mavis is more than a gospel singer – she is a “can you top that” singer – (laughter) – who is at home in every single form from folk to pop to R&B to hip hop. Mavis, for your inexhaustible versatility, for your singular voice, for your passion and for propelling us forward on the march towards greater equality, we all say thank you. (Applause.)

So – and lastly, in 1968, when James Taylor signed with Apple Records, I was in Vietnam and America was at war abroad and in turmoil here at home. We were fighting and marching to the music of Hendrix, the drumming of Ringo, the Doors, the Stones, and the Dead. And amid the darkness of that era, James Taylor returned sunlight to our minds, conjuring up the warm images of snow on the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston, deep greens and blues as the colors of choosing, and moonlight ladies singing rockabye to Sweet Baby James. James, my friend, for your grace and your lyricism, for your commitment to peace and justice and all the work you have done as a public citizen, to you and Kim, thank you for your friendship that has stood the test of time. (Applause.)

So, ladies and gentlemen, sadly – at least I view it as sadly – for me, this marks my last Kennedy Center Honors as Secretary of State, and it’s been one of the great and fun privileges for me to meet so many amazing artists and to share this dinner, now the fourth time, with all of you and hosting it together with my wife Teresa. The accomplishments of Kennedy Center honorees are really nothing less than a celebration of genius. Even more than that, to take and capture an audience, to entertain and enthrall for an entire lifetime, is not just the result of a gift passively accepted because of DNA. It’s the result of a courageous willingness of an individual to put their sense of art on the line, their sense of the world, their dreams, their hopes, and to put it out there and to work and to sweat and to practice and to stride into the spotlight with nowhere to hide and then to do it all over again the next day, the next month, the next year for a lifetime.

As I thought about all of this in the context of our country and the challenges of today, something that Robert Kennedy said when was running for president in 1968, which I’ve always treasured, came to mind. He raised with students in Kansas at the University of Kansas some basic questions about dignity and purpose, and art is in many ways about that.

He pointed out that what we now call our GDP was measured, among other things, in items like the size of our military and the capacity of our jails, the production of our weapons, and the pollution emanating from our factories. It was not, he lamented, measured by the things that mattered most in our daily lives.

Kennedy said, and I quote him, “The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

So by honoring the performers such as those we single out here tonight, I believe that we, all of us gathered here and the Kennedy Center itself, carry on a very worthy tradition, and we do something much more as well. And that is to remind ourselves and our nation that even amid the turbulence, even amid the tragedies, there is something truly magical about the human spirit – its ability to bounce back and feel joy, its capacity to move in beguiling ways, and its utter refusal to give in to darkness – the light is always there. And as we honor its expression through the performing arts, we do celebrate an important part of what indeed makes life worthwhile. So, thank you all for joining us to celebrate this, and thank you, artists for doing what you do so brilliantly. We appreciate it. (Applause.)