For decades, presidential conferral of the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal has been an august occasion, full of pomp and ceremony.
That’s not exactly how it went Thursday — and President Obama blamed it on honoree Mel Brooks. One reference to “Blazing Saddles” and the whole thing went off the rails.
At the start of the event, Obama singled out that iconic comedy as an example of the creative freedom that Brooks and other artists bring to their work. Brooks, the president related, told his staff as they worked on the raunchy script: “Write anything you want, because we will never be heard from again. We will all be arrested for this movie.”
As the president honored 24 renowned individuals and institutions for their contributions to American society, he made a couple of serious observations. “Their paths and their mediums could hardly be more different, and that’s what makes them great,” he said of the medal recipients. “They open our experience to theirs, and for that we honor them here today.”
But for the most part, his comedic riff continued. The group included a veritable hitlist of National Public Radio favorites: “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross, composer Philip Glass; actors Morgan Freeman, Luis Valdez and Audra McDonald; and authors Sandra Cisneros, Rudolfo Anaya, Ron Chernow, James McBride, Louis Menand, Elaine Pagels, Abraham Verghese and Isabel Wilkerson.
“We’ve got Terry Gross, and a whole bunch of people who Terry Gross has interviewed,” Obama observed, accurately capturing the crowd’s curated demographic.
While getting the president to drape a medal around your neck is a high honor, two of the artists singled out by the White House couldn’t make it in person. Obama lamented the fact that composer and musician Wynton Marsalis was not there, “And Morgan Freeman, who is undoubtedly off playing a black president again. He never lets me have my moment.”
And even once his formal remarks were finished, Obama couldn’t resist cracking a joke when the military officer could not locate the citation that lauded McDonald for the fact that “her rich, soulful voice continues to take her audiences to new heights,” prompting a delay.
“I’m glad Audra’s already a good friend of mine,” he quipped.
“Historically this has been a much more staid affair,” Obama noted as the ceremony reached its end. But quoting Brooks at the beginning, he added, “threw everything off.”
The president’s comments didn’t amuse everyone. On Thursday afternoon, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) tweeted that they struck a sour note given the ongoing racial unrest in Charlotte, N.C. “Obama jokes about race after two consecutive nights of hoodlums rioting in #Charlotte. Outrageous” he wrote.
2015 National Medal of Arts Recipients
- Mel Brooks, Actor, Comedian & Writer (New York, NY)
- Sandra Cisneros, Author (San Antonio, TX)
- Eugene O’Neill Theater Center (Waterford, CT)
- Morgan Freeman, Actor (Charleston, MS)
- Philip Glass, Composer (New York, NY)
- Berry Gordy, Record Producer & Songwriter (Los Angeles, CA)
- Santiago Jiménez Jr., Musician (San Antonio, TX)
- Moises Kaufman, Director & Playwright (New York, NY)
- Ralph Lemon, Dancer, Choreographer, Writer & Visual Artist (Brooklyn, NY)
- Audra McDonald, Actress & Singer (Croton-on-Hudson/New York, NY)
- Luis Valdez, Playwright, Actor, Writer & Director (San Juan Bautista, CA)
- Jack Whitten, Painter (New York, NY)
2015 National Humanities Medal Recipients
- Rudolfo Anaya, Author (Albuquerque, NM)
- José Andrés, Chef & Entrepreneur (Bethesda, MD)
- Ron Chernow, Author (Brooklyn, NY)
- Louise Glück, Poet (Cambridge, MA)
- Terry Gross, Radio Host & Producer (Philadelphia, PA)
- Wynton Marsalis, Composer & Musician (New York, NY)
- James McBride, Author (Lambertville, NJ)
- Louis Menand, Author (Cambridge, MA)
- Elaine Pagels, Historian & Author (Princeton, NJ)
- Prison University Project, Higher Education Program (San Quentin, CA)
- Abraham Verghese, Physician, Professor, & Author (Menlo Park, CA)
- Isabel Wilkerson, Journalist & Author (Atlanta, GA)