President Barack Obama honored 20 artists, scholars and writers _ from James Taylor to Quincy Jones, from Philip Roth to 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 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," 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," were also honored, but were unable to attend the ceremony.
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 conspiratorially 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."
Later, Taylor 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.
Taylor, who campaigned for 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, Obama noted that the honorees had contributed to both the intellectual growth of the nation, but also had provided the nation with 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."
As the honorees and guests made their way out the East Room, the Marine Band, a fixture at ceremonies such as this, played some familiar strains _ it was a medley of Taylor favorites.
Others receiving arts medals:
_Van Cliburn, the world-renown 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, theatre critic, producer, playwright, and founder of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre.
_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, scholar and a leader in the field of cultural history.
_Wendell E. Berry, poet and conservationist and author of more than 40 books.
_Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, scholar and literary critic.
_Stanley Nider Katz, president of the American Council of Learned Societies.
_Arnold Rampersad, 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.