- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2011

President Obama honored 20 artists, scholars and writers — including James Taylor, Quincy Jones, Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates — in a salute to the arts and humanities that embraced both celebrity and quiet achievement.

The president and first lady Michelle Obama filled the East Room of the White House on Wednesday with an array of talent that transcended generations and reached into the worlds of letters and music, history and dance, criticism and film.

“One of the great joys of being president is getting a chance to pay tribute to the artists and authors, poets and performers who have touched our hearts and opened our minds,” Mr. Obama said, adding with a knowing look, “or in the case of Quincy Jones and James Taylor, set the mood.”

Multiple Oscar winner Meryl Streep and Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” also were honored but were unable to attend.

The president bestowed 10 National Medal of Arts and 10 National Humanities Medals.

“I speak personally here because there are people here whose books or poetry or works of history shaped me,” he said. Nodding toward arts medalist and jazz artist Sonny Rollins seated before him, he said: “I’ve got these thumb-worn editions of these works of art and these old records where they were still vinyl, Sonny, before they went digital that helped inspire me or get me through a tough day or take risks that I might not otherwise have taken.”

Mr. Taylor later made his way to the White House press briefing room, where he marveled at the nearly saucer-sized medal around his neck.

“I’m just over the moon, sailing,” he said.

Mr. Taylor, who campaigned for Mr. Obama in 2008 and had to cancel a concert with his son Ben in Des Moines to attend Wednesday’s ceremony, offered the president a bit of political advice.

“I think that the administration has been almost too modest in their accomplishments,” he said. “I’m hoping the American public understands who we’ve got here, what we’ve got in this president.”

In his salute, Mr. Obama noted that the honorees had contributed to the intellectual growth of the nation and provided diversion — a chance to laugh or escape from the pressures of the moment.

“We also remember the art that challenged our assumptions, the scholarship that brought us closer to the events of our history, the poetry that we loved — or at least the poetry that we might recite to a girlfriend to seem deep,” he said. “Of course, we still hum the great songs by the musicians in this room — songs that in many cases have been the soundtrack of our lives over decades.”

The Marine Band, a fixture at ceremonies such as this, played a familiar tune as the honorees and guests made their way out the East Room — it was Mr. Taylor’s lullaby “Sweet Baby James.”

Others receiving arts medals:

• Van Cliburn, the world-renowned pianist who broke into the international scene in 1958 by winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

Quincy Jones, musician, composer, record producer and arranger of multiple musical fusions.

• Mark di Suvero, the abstract expressionist sculptor.

• Donald Hall, the poet laureate of the United States from 2006 to 2007.

• Robert Brustein, theater critic, producer, playwright and founder of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theater.

• Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the longest-running American dance festival, based in the Berkshires in Massachusetts.

Receiving medals for the humanities:

• Daniel Aaron, founding president of the Library of America.

• Bernard Bailyn, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian focused on early U.S. history.

• Jacques Barzun, a scholar and a leader in the field of cultural history.

• Wendell E. Berry, a poet, conservationist and author of more than 40 books.

• Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, a scholar and literary critic.

• Stanley Nider Katz, president of the American Council of Learned Societies.

• Arnold Rampersad, a biographer and literary critic known for books that profiled W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson and Ralph Ellison.

Philip Roth, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of 24 novels, including “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “American Pastoral.”

• Gordon Wood, scholar, historian and Pulitzer Prize winner.

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