[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1997, Book II)]
[December 7, 1997]
[Pages 1725-1727]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks at the Kennedy Center Honors Reception
December 7, 1997

    Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, tonight the stars shine 
over the White House. Tonight we honor artists who in all seasons have 
lit up generations of our national life.
    Ezra Pound once said that artists are the antennae of society, 
always probing, sensing, guiding us through the terrain of the human 
mind and spirit. I'm proud to salute five artists whose

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sensitivity, vision, and talent have challenged our minds and made our 
spirits soar.
    Especially since Edward Villella danced here in the East Room at the 
invitation of President and Mrs. Kennedy, the performing arts have 
increasingly found a home in this, the Nation's house. But the belief 
that arts are vital to our democracy goes back to our very beginnings, 
to the first President to live in the White House, John Adams, who 
envisioned an America that would study not just politics but painting, 
poetry, and music.
    The ultimate worth of our Nation will never be measured fully by the 
size of our treasury or the might of our military but instead in the 
endurance of our gifts to the human spirit. Already, our films, our 
music, our plays, our dance have inspired performers and captured 
audiences around the globe. Worldwide, they've spurred not only the 
forces of creativity but also, and especially recently, the cause of 
freedom. The arts are now, to borrow a phrase from one of our honorees, 
perhaps the strongest currents blowing in the wind.
    Tonight we pay tribute to five men and women who have spent their 
lives listening to their hearts and lifting ours, whose work and talent 
make them American originals.
    It all began with the look--[laughter]--and I can still hardly stand 
it--[laughter]--a downward cast of the chin, a shy, yet sly upward 
glance of the eye. The look captured Bogey and made Lauren Bacall a 
legend. After seeing her for the first time in ``To Have and Have Not,'' 
all America recognized that Lauren Bacall had it. The great James Agee 
wrote, ``She has cinema personality to burn, something completely new to 
the screen.''
    Bogey and Bacall gave us a series of classic films: ``The Big 
Sleep,'' ``Dark Passage,'' ``Key Largo.'' Then she showed us ``How To 
Marry a Millionaire'' and established herself as a master of stylish 
comedy. She conquered Broadway in ``Cactus Flower,'' was discovered all 
over again as a musical star in ``Applause,'' and won a second Tony 
Award for ``Woman of the Year.'' Just last year, more than half a 
century after her first film, she won rave reviews and an Oscar 
nomination for ``The Mirror Has Two Faces.'' I'm grateful that she took 
time out from being a legend to campaign a little for me last year, too. 
[Laughter] Tonight, on behalf of all Americans, I salute you, Lauren 
Bacall, as our woman of the year and an actress for all time.
    As a young boy growing up in Minnesota, Bob Dylan spent a lot of 
time in his room writing poems. Then at the age of 14 he bought a 
guitar. With it, he would set his poems to music, striking the chords of 
American history and infusing American popular music, from rock-and-roll 
to country, with new depth and emotion. With searing lyrics and 
unpredictable beats, he captured the mood of a generation. Everything he 
saw--the pain, the promise, the yearning, the injustice--turned to song. 
He probably had more impact on the people of my generation than any 
other creative artist.
    His voice and lyrics haven't always been easy on the ear, but 
throughout his career Bob Dylan has never aimed to please. He's 
disturbed the peace and discomforted the powerful. President Kennedy 
could easily have been talking about Bob Dylan when he said that ``If 
sometimes our great artists have been most critical of our society, it 
is because their concern for justice makes them aware that our Nation 
falls short of its highest potential.'' ``Like a Rolling Stone,'' Bob 
Dylan has kept moving forward, musically and spiritually, challenging 
all of us to move forward with him. Thank you, Bob Dylan, for a lifetime 
of stirring the conscience of our Nation.
    I think our next honoree would want me to acknowledge that I can't 
thank him for campaigning for me. [Laughter] Now, with that disclaimer--
[laughter]--I do have a lot to thank him for. For when I was a young boy 
in Arkansas and movies were my main source of inspiration, Charlton 
Heston showed me how to part the Red Sea, drive a Roman chariot, save 
medieval Spain--even after he was slain--[laughter]--and hold off a 
siege for ``55 Days at Peking.'' In more than 75 films, Charlton Heston 
has guided millions of movie lovers through nearly every great era of 
Western civilization, bringing to life a host of heroes, from Moses to 
Michelangelo to Buffalo Bill. He's even played Democrats. [Laughter] But 
he was, to be fair, selective; they were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew 
Jackson. [Laughter]
    If the big screen didn't exist, they would have had to invent it for 
Charlton Heston. A film hero for and of the ages, he's won an Oscar from 
the Academy, accolades from his peers, admiration from his audiences. 
But most of all, the characters he created, the courage and integrity 
and commitment they embody, remind all of us of the limitless 
possibility of the human

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spirit. He has been and always will be larger than life.
    The first song she ever performed in public was ``God Will Take Care 
of You.'' Well, God was taking care of all us when he gave us Jessye 
Norman's wondrous voice. From a church choir in Georgia to center stage 
at the Met, Jessye Norman has brought joy to music lovers and critics to 
their feet. Her voice has been called the greatest instrument in the 
world. Her greatness, however, lies not just in her sound but in her 
soul. She has that rare gift for capturing in musical truths of the 
human experience, truths that can never be fully expressed in words 
alone. Having brought new meaning to Mozart and Wagner, Berlioz and 
Stravinsky, Jessye Norman remains an American diva. Indeed, when she 
sang ``The Star-Spangled Banner'' at my Inauguration earlier this year, 
I thought the flag was buoyed by the waves of her voice. I must say, 
Jessye, you were a tough act to follow. [Laughter]
    After 40 albums, Grammy Awards, and the standing ovation of the 
entire world, she stands at the pinnacle of her art. Jessye Norman once 
said she wasn't the kind of woman to walk into a room unnoticed. 
[Laughter] And I can testify that that is true, having been in many 
rooms with her and never failing to notice. Since she first burst on the 
scene, her brilliance has held our attention, year-in and year-out. May 
the supernova of Jessye Norman shine forever.
    As a young man, Edward Villella was a varsity baseball player and a 
welterweight boxing champion. He might have made the big leagues, but 
his heart led him into a different world. He was a major league dancer 
from the moment he joined the New York City Ballet. As graceful as he 
was athletic, he mesmerized audiences and choreographers alike. 
Balanchine and Robbins created dances that only Villella could dance. 
The art rose to meet the man, and the man was always flying. He 
dominated the stage with space-swallowing charisma and leaps as 
effortless as they were breathtaking. He toured the Soviet Union at the 
height of the cold war and became the only American dancer ever to be 
demanded to give an encore. Today he brings the same energy and 
creativity to the shaping of the Miami City Ballet into America's next 
great dance company.
    Long before Michael Jordan, Edward Villella showed us that man 
indeed could fly. [Laughter] Thank you for taking American dance to new 
    Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, Charlton Heston, Jessye Norman, Edward 
Villella: artists and Americans who have made indelible imprints on the 
performing arts and on our national character. It is quite a tribute to 
them that all of you have come for them tonight. In them we find the 
sass, the raw emotion, the heroic strength, the passionate voice, the 
soaring aspirations of our Nation.
    America salutes each and every one of you. Thank you, and God bless 

Note: The President spoke at 5:40 p.m. in the East Room at the White 
House. In his remarks, he referred to choreographers Jerome Robbins and 
the late George Balanchine; and NBA basketball player Michael Jordan.