President Joe Biden welcomed a high-wattage collection of singers, authors, artists and humanitarians to the White House on Tuesday to present them with medals — and then stole the show himself with a quip about seeking reelection.
Bruce Springsteen, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mindy Kaling and Gladys Knight were among the 22 people and organizations being honored. When novelist Colson Whitehead’s award was announced, Biden noted that the author of “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” has already won back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes.
The president, who is expected to announce for reelection this spring, quickly picked it up
“Pretty good man,” he told Whitehead. “I’m kind of looking for a back-to-back myself,” he added, drawing a laugh from the audience.
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It was a feel-good event in the East Room, as the honorees stepped forward to receive their awards one by one. Louis-Dreyfus, who channeled Biden’s resume when she starred in “Veep,” jokingly sagged under the weight when the president placed the medal for the arts around her neck. “Wow!” she exclaimed.
Springsteen, with his everyman persona, looked incongruous in a black suit. He was lauded for “his extraordinary contributions to the American songbook, and for being ‘The Boss.’” Poet and author Richard Blanco stunned in a teal tuxedo.
Knight, the “empress of soul,” gave the president a giant hug when he put the medal around her neck. Jaclyn Sallee, who received the medal on behalf of Native America Calling, a podcast and radio show, beamed with pride. So did social historian Earl Lewis, who, according to the president, chronicles African American history and “explores how diversity strengthens our nation.”
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Biden joked that he opens his closet to find one honoree, designer Vera Wang, inside — her clothes, anyway — then said, “Your dresses always look beautiful on my wife.”
The medals are Biden’s first batch of awards for the arts and humanities and were delayed by the pandemic. The president surprised Sir Elton John with a National Humanities Medal during a White House musical event last September. He told the crowd how important their work was, in keeping American culture alive and reminding people of our history - even the parts we’d like to forget. The honorees work includes dance, art, design, history as well as music, writing and philanthropy.
“You do make the country better, you make it a better place,” Biden told the crowd before they departed for a White House reception.
The honorees did not perform or speak to the crowd after they received their awards. But the U.S. Marine Corps band that often plays for East Room ceremonies did orchestral numbers of Springsteen hits “Born to Run” and ”Born in the U.S.A.”
Recipients of the 2021 National Medal of Arts:
— Judith Francisca Baca, artist.
— Fred Eychaner, businessman and philanthropist.
— Jose Feliciano, singer.
— Mindy Kaling, actress.
— Gladys Knight, singer.
— Julia Louis-Dreyfus, actor.
— Antonio Martorell-Cardona, painter.
— Joan Shigekawa, film producer.
— Bruce Springsteen.
— Vera Wang, fashion designer.
— The Billie Holiday Theatre.
— The International Association of Blacks in Dance.
Recipients of the 2021 National Humanities Medal:
— Richard Blanco, poet and author.
— Johnnetta Betsch Cole, anthropologist.
— Walter Isaacson, writer.
— Earl Lewis, social historian.
— Henrietta Mann, academic.
— Ann Patchett, author.
— Bryan Stevenson, advocate for the poor.
— Amy Tan, author.
— Tara Westover, author.
— Colson Whitehead, author.
— Native America Calling.