- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2009

The first Kennedy Center Honors hosted by the country’s first black president was a celebration of a multicultural and international America that mirrors the administration.

Awards were given to an actor who put Italian-American life on the big screen, a musician who represents patriotism at its best, a Jewish-American comic who fearlessly sent up racial and religious stereotypes, an opera singer who blazed a trail for her fellow blacks, and a jazz musician who for decades, as Herbie Hancock said at the gala tribute, “served as unofficial ambassador for America.”

What might be the nation’s top award for achievement in the performing arts are usually given to a mix of the famous and the slightly obscure. This year’s class, though, was heavy on the popular favorites — Robert De Niro, Bruce Springsteen, Mel Brooks and Dave Brubeck. Only Grace Bumbry, filling the spot usually reserved for classical music or dance, is not well-known to millions.

“I don’t think there’s a design to that,” Honors creator and producer George Stevens Jr. told The Washington Times during the Saturday rehearsal for Sunday’s main event.

The committee that selects the honorees might have had another theme in mind, though.

“This year, they are all American,” Mr. Stevens noted of an award that has sometimes gone to foreigners, such as operatic tenor Placido Domingo and, last year, members of the Who.

“We thought for the first year of a new president, it’s a nice touch.” The president and first lady Michelle Obama received the honorees at the White House hours before stars of stage and screen walked the red carpet at the Kennedy Center en route to the Opera House for a tribute performance that will be telecast on CBS on Dec. 29.

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“On a day like this, I remember I’m the president, but he’s the Boss,” he told Mr. Springsteen at the reception.

Sunday also happened to be Mr. Brubeck’s 89th birthday. At the gala, Mr. Hancock and a collection of talented musicians — which eventually included Mr. Brubeck’s four sons — performed a medley of some of his greatest hits, including “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” and ended with a jazzy rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

The evening, emceed as usual by presidential daughter Caroline Kennedy, began with the tribute to Mr. De Niro. Martin Scorsese, himself a 2007 Kennedy Center honoree and the man who directed Mr. De Niro to his best-actor Oscar in “Raging Bull,” talked about what the actor taught him: “He finds the humanity in people who, at first glance, seem totally inhuman.”

Meryl Streep spoke of “the restraint, the courtliness, the danger in young Don Corleone” — Mr. De Niro also received an Oscar for that performance in “The Godfather, Part II.”

Sharon Stone and Harvey Keitel were also on hand to pay tribute, while the young actor most like the intense Mr. De Niro, Edward Norton, talked about repeatedly watching his performances “to study and understand their bizarre and brilliant rhythms.”

Ben Stiller, who starred with Mr. De Niro in “Meet the Parents,” was also on stage to admire the actor, but he saved his funniest line for Mr. Brooks: “He’s like the Barack Obama for short, funny Jews. Yes, we can!”

Frank Langella, who opened up a musical medley for Mr. Brooks after his frequent collaborator, Carl Reiner, paid a hilarious, meandering tribute, also tipped his hat to Mr. Obama: “I hope the lyrics to the theme song of ‘The 12 Chairs’ guide you in office.” The song begins, “Hope for the best; expect the worst.”

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