My White House Dilemma

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By Leon Fleisher
Saturday, February 9, 2008

I am a musician, one of five artists -- the others being Brian Wilson, Steve Martin, Diana Ross and Martin Scorsese -- honored recently by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The event, a deeply moving and gratifying tribute to the performing arts and artists in America, was broadcast to our nation. But what you couldn't see in that broadcast was how conflicted I felt about being there.

Let me be frank: I was flattered to be included in so distinguished a group and to be recognized for whatever contributions I may have made to American life. I was pleased to be part of an event that raises money for an institution as vital as the Kennedy Center and to be with my family and to see their joy at the ceremony.

What made me unhappy and continues to trouble me was that I was required to attend a White House reception on the afternoon of the gala. I cannot speak for the other honorees, but while I profoundly respect the presidency, I am horrified by many of President Bush's policies.

In the past seven years, Bush administration policies have amounted to a systematic shredding of our nation's Constitution -- the illegal war it initiated and perpetuates; the torturing of prisoners; the espousing of "values" that include a careful defense of the "rights" of embryos but show a profligate disregard for the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings; and the flagrant dismantling of environmental protections. These, among many other depressing policies, have left us weak and shamed at home and in the world.

For several weeks before the honors, I wrestled with this dilemma, deciding in the end that I would not attend the reception at the White House. That decision was met with deep, if understandable, disapproval by the powers that be. I was informed that I was hardly the first honoree to express such reserve; cited to me, among others, were Arthur Miller and Isaac Stern during the Reagan years and several during the present administration. I was asked to attend all of the scheduled events and to follow the well-established protocol of silence.

While this might have made for a glamorous experience, it also presented a profound irony. Turning a blind eye to the political undercurrents of the event dismantles the very force of art in this country that the honors celebrate: the freedom, nay, the obligation to express oneself honestly and without fear. Ultimately, there is no greater honor than that freedom.

In the end, I decided to attend wearing a peace symbol around my neck and a purple ribbon on my lapel, at once showing support for our young men and women in the armed services and calling for their earliest return home. My family did the same, as did a number of fellow attendees who, over the weekend's various events, asked me for ribbons of their own.

I had no wish to pressure or embarrass the other honorees. I did not want to disappoint my family, and I certainly did not want to embarrass or injure the Kennedy Center, where I have performed for decades and which is named for an American whom I greatly admired. As President John F. Kennedy said, "The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation is close to the center of a nation's purpose -- and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilization."

I can't say yet whether these small gestures were or will be sufficient to neutralize the sense of regret that came with having agreed to follow protocol. Time, one hopes, will tell. And there is, of course, much more to do.

I am nearly 80 years old and have been making music for almost all of that time, sustained by the belief that, in the words that Beethoven inscribed in his copy of the "Missa Solemnis," the purpose of music is to communicate from the heart to the heart. Beethoven's vision of music as a force capable of reconciling us to each other and to the world may today seem remote, but that renders it an ever more crucial ideal for which to strive.

Therefore I am making known the dilemma I faced during my most celebrated hours. Perhaps speaking about my internal struggle will loosen the ties that bind future honorees -- not to mention the generations of artists they mentor and for which they serve as models -- from the code of silence that has pervaded this pinnacle of artistic recognition.

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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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