After receiving the National Medal of Arts yesterday, Ray Bradbury, the master of out-of-this-world words, sat by a window in the Blue Room of the White House.
He was taking in the perfect view of the Washington Monument and a sliver of moon. "This is the happiest day in my life," he said, gesturing to the landmark. "I started from nothing. It was a long haul and now I'm here. Look at that moon, just hanging there."
Bradbury, author of "Fahrenheit 451" and "The Martian Chronicles," was one of the 16 leaders in the arts and humanities -- 14 individuals and two organizations -- saluted in an Oval Office ceremony by President Bush.
Some of the winners had unique connections to the occasion. Choreographer Twyla Tharp had attended the 1985 medal ceremony for the legendary Martha Graham. "I want to do what we can to bring attention to the [arts] endowment. I received their support when I started, and that needs to continue for young artists," Tharp said.
The legacy of teaching was clearly apparent as a knot of former students stood around Vincent Scully, the country's preeminent architectural historian. "He was simply a magnificent teacher with an energy and sparkle. We would sit in this huge lecture hall and the lights would go down and it was a theater. He had this huge pointer," said Ted Libbey, director of media arts at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Other winners of the arts medal were opera composer Carlisle Floyd ("Of Mice and Men" and "Susannah") and the late sculptor Frederick Hart, whose work includes part of the west facade of the Washington National Cathedral and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Also on the list were Anthony Hecht, who served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress before his death last month, and wildlife artist John Ruthven.
Recipients of the National Humanities Medal included author Madeleine L'Engle, art critic Hilton Kramer and scholar Shelby Steele. Also honored were educator Marva Collins, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, political scientist Harvey Mansfield and philosophy professor John Searle. L'Engle, author of the classic "A Wrinkle in Time," was unable to attend and was represented by her granddaughter Charlotte Jones.
In recent years, the White House also has honored organizations that support cultural life. This year the arts medal went to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which gave $50 million to New York City arts groups, museums and artists to keep them afloat after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The humanities medal was given to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society for "preserving the rich history and traditions of the United States Capitol, and for honoring the many proud public servants who have given it life."
Many of the scholars have been caught in the culture wars and debates about race and class. The realization that their work is appreciated is rewarding, they say. "It feels affirming," said Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is following up his work on affirmative action with a book titled "White Guilt."
"I understand that much of what I write is high-risk and touches a lot of nerves. Sometimes you feel like an outsider's outsider. Something like this makes you feel like just an outsider," he said.
After the Oval Office meeting, Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney held a second ceremony and a reception in the foyer and East Room. Mrs. Bush talked about President John Adams's move into an unfinished White House, where the first picture put on the walls was a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. Adams knew, she said, that "studies of arts and humanities were necessary," and she saluted the medalists as important teachers.
Each year the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal go to an influential set of writers, scholars and artists. The arts and humanities endowments and the White House select the honorees, with suggestions from the public. This year's list was finalized after the election.