Because his voice was slightly croaky, President Clinton spent several minutes during the presentation of the National Medals for the Arts and Humanities demonstrating his affection for the winners with hugs instead of words.
But though they were abbreviated, he couldn't resist making a few remarks. He ticked off the credits of Norman Lear, television producer and liberal activist, and praised the eye-opening irony delivered to America from the living room of Archie Bunker and the junkyard of Fred Sanford.
Then he digressed to tell of meeting Lear in early 1981. Clinton said he had just become "the youngest former governor in American history." Lear took him to a play he had produced on Broadway. "We went to opening night. It closed three days later. We are here today because the intervening years have been kinder to both of us," the president said before throwing his arms around the TV producer.
Introducing Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Clinton said his achievements were chronicling the civil rights movement. "When it comes to the struggle for peace, justice and freedom, Taylor Branch literally has written the book," said Clinton, specifically citing Branch's two volumes on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.
Again, he added a personal note about their bond. "We grew up in the same sort of South. We were affected by the limits, belongings and the language of race. I met Taylor Branch 30 years ago this month. I knew then he was a remarkable young man, and I must tell you, I am very proud of the gifts he has given America in the years since." Again, hanging the medal around the author's neck, Clinton stepped into a shoulder-crushing embrace.
He also spoke abut two frequent visitors to the Clinton White House, singer Aretha Franklin and filmmaker Steven Spielberg. "She will probably not know how many lives she has enriched," said Clinton of Franklin. The citation said "Respect," one of her signature songs, was really spelled "A-r-e-t-h-a."
Clinton said Spielberg's treatment of World War II in "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" gave the audience another perspective on the director. "We saw that he was an astonishing historian as well," noted Clinton.
The president also revealed that the first family shares a weekly listening habit with a lot of the country. Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" "is always blaring on the radio in the White House," he said in presenting the medal to the storyteller.
The ceremony was on the stage of Constitution Hall instead of the White House lawn because of the drizzle. Arts medals also went to arts patron Irene Diamond, architect and designer Michael Graves, folk musician Odetta, actress Rosetta LeNoire, arts administrator Harvey Lichtenstein, singer Lydia Mendoza, sculptor George Segal and prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. The Juilliard School, the performing arts center in New York that has trained Robin Williams, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, also was cited.
Humanities medals also were given to librarian Patricia M. Battin; scholar Jacquelyn Dowd Hall; television anchor and writer Jim Lehrer; political philosopher John Rawls; and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson.
Lehrer has moderated presidential debates, something Clinton didn't ignore, calling Lehrer an "asker of hard and probing questions, in a deceptively civilized way."