President Obama on Sunday night paid tribute to Beatles singer Paul McCartney, talk-show icon Oprah Winfrey and acclaimed country music icon Merle Haggard, among others, as the newest Kennedy Center honorees.
Speaking at a Kennedy Center Honors reception at the White House, Obama saluted McCartney, Winfrey and Haggard, along with three others, for their contributions to American arts.
McCartney was already honored at the White House this past summer, which Obama referred to. The musician received a George Gershwin award for his contributions to popular music.
“You have nothing to worry about,” Obama told McCartney. “I just recovered from my last tussle on the basketball court.”
The Beatles, Obama said, “went on to change the way the world thought about music.”
“Their songs were the soundtrack for an era of immense creativity and change,” Obama said. “And when Paul continued his musical journey alone after the Beatles broke up, he would become one of the few performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice -– as a Beatle and as a solo artist."
Obama said Haggard is also particularly deserving of honors, recalling Haggard’s oft-invoked epithet, “the poet of the common man.”
“Merle likes to say that he’s living proof that things can go wrong in America, but also that things can go right,” Obama said. “In a day and age when so many country singers claim to be rambling, gambling outlaws, Merle actually is one.”
Obama also noted that Haggard performed “Okie from Muskogee” for President Nixon in 1973, in the same room at the White House.
“Through it all, Merle’s power has always come from the truth he tells — about life and love and everything in between. As he says, ‘The best songs feel like they’ve always been there.' "
Obama also honored Broadway songwriter Jerry Herman, pointing out that he is the only composer to have three shows on Broadway simultaneously, as well as dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones.
Of Winfrey, Obama said he and his wife “personally love this woman.”
“The more you know Oprah, the more spectacular you realize her character and her soul are, and the more you appreciate what a wonderful, gifted person she is,” Obama said.
“Oprah’s gift — as a host, as a producer, as an Oscar-nominated actress –- has always been her ability to relate to her audience –- to laugh with us, to cry with us, to draw us in and connect our most fervent hopes and deepest fears to her own. The reason we share ourselves with Oprah is because she shares herself with us. Her childhood of abuse. Her personal battles. Her life as a woman, as an African-American, as someone who is determined to confront both great injustices of the world and the private struggles of everyday life.”