David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant received recognitions for their contributions in influencing American culture through art. The late-night comedian, the award-winning actor, and the surviving members of Led Zeppelin were joined by Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy and famed ballerina Natalia Makarova.
Those prominent figures in art got medallions courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, December 1 at a gala dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They were also celebrated in a tribute show presented at the Kennedy Center Opera House with Mr. President and First Lady Michelle also in attendance.
Laughers broke out when Obama called the honorees "some extraordinary people who have no business being on the same stage together." He said, "We've got Buddy Guy sitting next to Dustin Hoffman. We've got Dave Letterman alongside one of the greatest ballerinas of all time. I don't think Dave dances." He jokingly added that he found "no smooth transition from ballet to Led Zeppelin."
The commander-in-chief said Guy used wire from window screen as his first guitar strings. "That worked until his parents started wondering how all the mosquitoes were getting in," he joked. Mr. President also remembered Letterman's "highlight of his career" as a weatherman who reported Indianapolis was being pelted by hail "the size of canned hams."
To Led Zeppelin, Obama jokingly thanked the rockers for behaving themselves at the White House given that they often left "hotel rooms trashed and mayhem all around" in the past. The president quipped, "It's fitting that we're doing this in a room with windows that are about three inches thick and Secret Service all around."
On a serious note, the President who just got re-elected referred to his guests as the people who "inspired us to see things in a new way, to hear things differently, to discover something within us or to appreciate how much beauty there is in the world." He added, "It's that unique power that makes the arts so important."
Aretha Franklin, Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber were on hand to pay tribute to the recipients. Past honorees like Meryl Streep (2011), Judith Jamison (1999), and Robert De Niro were also present. Other attendees include former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and comedians Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel.
De Niro described Hoffman as "world-class, spectacular, colossal ... pain in the (butt)" when he took the stage. "What Dustin did for all of us was to make it OK to be a character actor and a movie star. He broke the mold of the movie star as the handsome leading man. Frankly, I would have preferred to make it as a handsome leading man. Damn you, Dustin Hoffman!" he said.
Jamison also sang high praise for Makarova. "Natalia is a rare story of life coming full circle. Twenty years after she made her painful decision to leave her native land, she returned to a changing Leningrad and to her beloved Kirov Theater, where she had studied and had become a star. There, at the Kirov, she gave her final performance, where it had all begun for her," she gushed.
Another highlight of the evening was when the Secretary of State took a special note about Letterman's inclusion to join the crowd of talented artists and musicians. Referring to mixed responses from public as to why he got picked, Clinton said, "Dave and I have a history. I have been a guest on his show several times, and if you include references to my pant suits, I'm on at least once a week."
Letterman himself said on the red carpet, "It supersedes everything, honestly." He humbly added, "I haven't won that many awards."