Linda Ronstadt remained composed as she walked up to claim her National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony Monday afternoon. After all, she’s no stranger to the stage.
Even when President Obama whispered something to her as he put the medal around her neck — that he’d had a “little crush” on her when he was younger — the pop singer just smiled.
She’s probably heard that before, too.
Obama had a secret for each of the 22 recipients of the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal: He brought author Maxine Hong Kingston close to tears when he told her he’d used her memoir, “The Woman Warrior,” as a model for his own.
They weren’t secrets by the end of the East Room ceremony. The president shared with the crowd what he’d told some honorees, as he spoke about his personal connection to their work.
The medals, which are given by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, are touted as the highest honors given by the U.S. government to artists, arts patrons, scholars and critics in their fields. They are lifetime achievement awards, intended to recognize the ways that recipients’ art and scholarship “enriched our lives and revealed something about ourselves and our country,” Obama said.
There was enthusiastic applause, but no cheering, as Obama placed medals around the awardees’ necks. Instead, it was apparent where each recipients’ fans were sitting based on where in the crowd a cluster of iPhone screens shot into the air for a photograph as they walked toward the president.
Along with Ronstadt and Kingston, the arts medal was awarded to poet and novelist Julia Alvarez; Chicago arts patron Joan Harris; dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones; composer John Kander; DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg; documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles; New York architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams; and Arizona artist James Turrell.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music, a performing arts venue known for its focus on alternative and avant-garde works, also received a medal from the NEA.
There were no pop stars among the recipients of the National Humanities Medal, but there was one D.C. celebrity: Diane Rehm, a native Washingtonian and longtime host for local NPR affiliate WAMU, was honored for “illuminating the people and stories behind the headlines,” according to her citation.
The humanities medal recognizes scholarship, criticism and other contributions to history, language, literature and philosophy. In addition to Rehm, the NEH awarded medals to literary critic M.H. Abrams; historians David Brion Davis, Darlene Clark Hine and Anne Firor Scott; William Theodore de Bary, an expert in East Asian studies; architect Johnpaul Jones; documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson; and Krista Tippett, host of the public radio show “On Being.”
The American Antiquarian Society, a Massachusetts-based library and research center dedicated to pre-20th century American history, was the sole institution to receive the humanities medal.