By Erik Wasson and Meghashyam Mali - 12/02/12 10:52 PM EST
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Sunday paid tribute to this year’s Kennedy Center Honors award recipients, celebrating the art and music world talents at a White House reception.
Speaking in the East Room, Obama lauded the honorees, comedian David Letterman, ballerina Natalia Makarova, actor Dustin Hoffman, blues guitarist Buddy Guy and the surviving members of rock group Led Zeppelin.
Obama said their collective achievements spoke to “something that has always made this country great -- the idea that here in America, more than any other place on Earth, we are free to follow our own passions, explore our own gifts, wherever they may lead us.”
“Tonight’s honorees didn’t just take up their crafts to make a living. They did it because they couldn’t imagine living any other way,” he continued. “That passion took each of them from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of their profession. Tonight, in the People’s House, we have a chance to say thank you.”
Obama addressed each of the award winners individually, teasing late-night host David Letterman.
“It’s different when you’re not the one with the mic, isn’t it, Dave,” Obama said to laughter. “You're looking a little stressed, aren't you?”
Later, moving on to Led Zeppelin after praising Makarova, who defected from the U.S. in 1970, Obama joked, “I worked with the speechwriters -- there is no smooth transition from ballet to Led Zeppelin.”
“We were trying to work the "Stairway to Heaven" metaphor and it didn't work,” he added.
The president teased the rockers, notorious for their hard-partying antics, and said they had “redefined the rock and roll lifestyle.”
“We do not have video of this. But there was some hotel rooms trashed and mayhem all around. So it's fitting that we’re doing this in a room with windows that are about three inches thick -- and Secret Service all around,” said Obama.
Closing his remarks, the president said that all those in attendance could “remember a moment when the people on this stage touched our lives.”
“Maybe they didn’t lead us to become performers ourselves. But maybe they 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 said.
In addition to the honored award winners, the event included a number of celebrities including Hollywood icons Alec Baldwin, Jack Black, Morgan Freeman and Robert De Niro and musicians Lenny Kravitz, and Jeff Black.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) were among the lawmakers in attendance.
Following the White House reception, the president and first lady attended the 35th annual awards gala at the Kennedy Center. Performances from the event were taped for broadcast on Dec. 26.
This is the fourth year that Obama has honored the award’s recipients, with last year’s group including singer Neil Diamond, jazz artist Sonny Rollins, actors Barbara Cook and Meryl Streep and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
This story was last updated at 10:34 p.m.