By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010; C01
"Sorry I'm a little late. I had this thing I had to do," joked President Obama, just before an afternoon ceremony at the White House on Thursday in which luminaries in the arts and academics were presented with the highest medals for achievements in their fields.
He was more than an hour late and he'd already spent a grueling day at a bipartisan health-care summit, but the atmosphere in the East Room was light and the president was clearly in the mood to relax, awarding the National Medal of the Arts and the National Humanities Medal to 20 recipients, including singer Bob Dylan, actor and director Clint Eastwood, painter Frank Stella and Nobel laureate and author Elie Wiesel.
In the arts, the recipients were Stella, designer Milton Glaser, architect Maya Lin, soprano Jessye Norman, Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, composer John Williams and actress and dancer Rita Moreno, who gave the president a big hug upon receiving her award and then an I-can't-help-it look to first lady Michelle Obama, who was seated in the first row. Dylan and Eastwood did not attend, but representatives of two groups that were cited for contributions to the arts did: the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the School of American Ballet.
The humanities citations went to prizewinning authors and historians Robert A. Caro ("The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Means of Ascent and Master of the Senate"), Annette Gordon-Reed ("The Hemingses of Monticello"), David Levering Lewis ("W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963") and William H. McNeill ("Plagues and Peoples"). The list also includes speechwriter and lawyer Theodore Sorensen, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Philippe de Montebello and philanthropist Albert H. Small, as well as Wiesel, founding chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the author of "Night," whom the president gave his own big hug.
Leaders in the arts and humanities are surveyed by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both federally funded agencies, and the final list is selected by the White House.
"These individuals and organizations show us how many ways art works every day," NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman said in a statement. "They represent the breadth and depth of American architecture, design, film, music, performance, theater and visual art."
Delivering remarks at the end of the ceremony, Obama said that all of the honorees had touched his life in some way, including Caro, whose book "The Power Broker," about urban planner Robert Moses, the president had read when he was 22 and found "mesmerizing." And speaking of Sorenson, who once wrote speeches for President John F. Kennedy, Obama joked that he "had used up all the good lines for everybody."
The awards, given annually, were postponed last year because of the shootings at Fort Hood, Tex.