My Back-Row View of the White House Arts and Humanities Awards

THE WHITE HOUSE, WASHINGTON, D.C.: Politics divide. Arts unite.

Overly simple, perhaps borderline trite. But consider this. Yesterday in Washington began with the White House releasing its annual budget, the first volley in what promises to be a year-long partisan exchange of vitriol and venom. Four hours later I found myself in a moment liberated from ideological divides, incongruously at an event in the White House itself.

Was it coincidence that President Barack Obama chose to grace the necks of the 2011 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal winners with their prizes on the same day as his budget release? The President himself hinted it was not. “Michelle and I love this event,” he told the audience gathered in the White House’s stately East Room, beneath the glint of television production lights off of 18th Century chandeliers. “This is something we look forward to every single year.” Who wouldn’t choose rubbing elbows with the likes of poet Rita Dove and actor/director Al Pacino over sparring with Republican congressional leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner?

(See photos of each recipient except André Watts–who had a performance scheduled in Salt Lake City–in the slide show below.)

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I stood pressed into the back of the room, behind the gold rope used to cordon us reporters from higher levels of humanity. The East Room was considered imposingly large when built—those dining with Thomas Jefferson felt the warmth of four fireplaces—but it is dwarfed today by the scale of modern architecture. Organizers could only fit in a few rows of chairs, forming a semi-circle around a temporary stage boasting only a podium bearing the Presidential seal. I stood beneath one of those tall TV light cranes, shoved in front of one of those now unneeded fireplaces.

As the audience drifted in, a few celebrities appeared, their arrival announced by a stir among my colleagues behind the press rope. Washington reporters think nothing of covering a President or a visiting head of state, but we lose our composure when Hollywood pays a visit. Sarah Jessica Parker lingered in the center aisle, as if struggling to find her seat, ignoring her companion who was signaling its availability. The sound of paparazzi gunfire followed, cameras snapping as the phalanx of photographers to my left demonstrated their gratitude for her stillness with shot after shot. In front of me, just beyond the gold rope, sat the breathtakingly beautiful actress Alfre Woodard. I took too many photos of her. She paid me no heed–yet another media hound behind a rope–but I decided I’d tell my wife that she had winked at me.

The back wall of reporters was split in two by gold rope and Secret Service agents, creating a lane leading into the room from two ten-foot tall doors of highly polished wood opened. The doors opened; it was time for the sixteen honorees to enter from what is called the Cross Hall, a rare moment of logic in Washington in that the hall crosses between the East Room and the State Dining Room. The distance to the front-row seats reserved for the honorees was no more than twenty feet, a short walk. But the Arts and Humanities Awards are not unlike a lifetime achievement award, so some recipients—namely Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Ashbery and music and culture essayist Charles Rosen–needed assistance. Acclaimed painter and printmaker Will Barnet had no difficulty maneuvering his wheelchair. The Arts winners took seats to their right, the Humanities winners went left. Scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah discovered someone was already in his reserved seat, and he forcefully stated his case. After a brief delay, the miscreant relocated to the back row.

I’ve attended presidential events dating back to the administration of Bush the First. There is always an energy in the air. The Leader of The Free World bears a strong presence, regardless of your opinion of him or his policies. But yesterday that energy preceded the President; it entered with the awardees. It was as if someone in that now climate-controlled East Room had turned up the creativity thermostat. I suppose the accumulation of more than 600 years of labor at arts and letters among 16 award winners manifests its own force.

A loudspeaker on the fireplace mantel behind me began playing “Hail to the Chief,” and President Barack Obama walked through those same polished doors. The First Lady walked with him, and she took a seat next to Dr. Jill Biden, the Vice President’s wife, while the President took his familiar position behind the podium.

“The arts have the power to bring us together,” Obama told us. “There’s not a person here today who hasn’t had their beliefs challenged by a writer’s words.” I thought of Dove, the youngest-ever Poet Laureate in 1993, who helped us look at race in new ways. I glanced over at Appiah, who had literally staked a claim to his seat here today, and considered the lessons he has taught us regarding globalization.

It was in fact an impressive list of winners. Mel Tillis, who overcame a stutter to produce more than 60 country music albums. André Watts, wowing audiences at the piano with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 16. Emily Rauh Pulitzer, without whom there would be no Pulitzer Prize for the Arts. And Martin Puryear, a sublime sculptor. When his biography was read to the crowd, the narrator said: “His unwavering commitment to manual skill and traditional building methods offer a seductive alternative to our increasingly digital world.” I nodded, welcoming the seduction of a pre-technology life, while capturing the moment on a digital camera and recording it with an app on my smartphone.

A beaming smile filled the President’s face, a common occurrence four years ago when he was scoring win after win in caucus after caucus, but largely absent since he assumed the office he had fought so hard to win. Framed by portraits of George and Martha Washington, Obama’s voice danced across his listeners as it had in 2008. “Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘I dwell in possibility.’ ‘I dwell in possibility.’ And so does the American spirit,” Obama said. “That’s who we are as a people. And that’s who our honorees are. Each of you have traveled a unique path to get here. And your fields represent the full spectrum of the arts and humanities. With us are actors and poets, authors, singers, philosophers, sculptors, curators, musicians, and historians. We even have an economist, which we don’t always get on stage. But what connects every one of you is that you dwell in possibilities. You create new possibilities for all of us.”

The line about the economist drew polite laughter. But this audience of artists and scholars found far more to savor in those words. And the words connected us.

I witness few true connections in this town. It’s easy in this era of self-constructed digital hollows—in which we converse only with those of like mind, hardening our own ideological biases every time we “like” or “retweet” a politicized post—to become hardened to the possibility of harmony.

And it would be erroneous to suggest that these artists and scholars lacked their own ideological agendas. For many, their art has been a tool they have wielded to fight injustice. But I knew, in that moment, that art can provide connection at a higher level than ideology. We can find a poet’s expression sublime or subversive. We can find a historian’s thesis empowering or enraging. But we can celebrate them for embracing their creative muse and applying their intellect to human advancement.

As the President spoke, about a half-dozen military officers stood ramrod-still in strategic points around the room. In their formal uniforms, with gold strands of braided rope adorning their right shoulders, their high visibility contrasted with the suit-wearing Secret Service agents disguised in equal number. A young female officer I spoke with before the event told me she was in the U.S. Coast Guard. She pointed to her various colleagues in arms. The one in black is Navy, she said. That blue one is Air Force, and there’s another blue uniform, but he’s Coast Guard like me. Thanks to her generosity, I knew it was an Air Force officer who read the biographies of each recipient. A Navy officer handed Obama each medal in turn, purple sashes for arts winners, red for humanities.

All of the uniformed guardians, as they are taught, adopted a serious exterior. I wondered what they thought of the event, if they were trying to be as distant from the festivities as those of us behind the press rope. Did they frequently attend White House events? Had they registered that this was a rare bird, a gathering absent political rhetoric? Did they think back to a moment when a writer’s words had forced reflection? I believe they did. I am convinced of this because I saw a flash of humanity break through the stern visage of the young Coast Guard officer I had conversed with, when she helped John Ashbery to the stage.

“It’s true that we all have songs in our soul that are only ours,” Obama said, after citing Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.” “We all have a unique part in the story of America. But that story is bigger than any one of us. And it endures because we are all heirs to a fundamental truth: that out of many, are one — this incredible multitude.”

The room was small, and the microphone powerful, but Obama’s voice rose nonetheless. “I hear America singing today. I hear America singing through the artists and the writers that we honor this afternoon; the men and women who are following in the footsteps of Whitman and Hemingway, and Souza and Armstrong, and Eakins and Rockwell. But I also hear America singing through the artists and writers who will be sitting here a few decades from now with another President.”

While Pacino nodded his head, Obama continued. “Somewhere in America, the next great writer is wrestling with the first draft of an English paper.” As dawn broke that morning and White House aides were preparing to release the budget, I was at home struggling with a critical essay for my MFA instructor. I allowed myself a momentary fantasy of sitting on the other side of the rope line, a colored sash around my neck.

“Somewhere, the next great American artist is doodling on her homework.” A few days ago, I sat down with my 16-year-old aspiring artist daughter to review her work on an SAT practice test. Near the end of the math section, I came across a sketch of a pensive young woman. When I asked my daughter if she thought it wise to take precious time during a standardized test to doodle, she told me the process of drawing clears logjams in her head. I chose to accept her explanation. Perhaps the President was speaking of my daughter.

No U.S. President walks away from a microphone without firing off at least one policy position. Obama inserted his at the conclusion of his opening remarks. I hadn’t read the new budget, although I could have pulled it up on my smartphone with a new app the White House recently developed. With all due apologies to Martin Puryear, I would have welcomed that digital advance ten years ago, when on a below-freezing morning I joined the queue outside the U.S. Government Printing Office building next to Union Station, awaiting the 9 am opening at which bureaucrats would hand each of us with press badges three phone books’ worth of federal agency line-items.

As a reporter who covered the arts, I would monitor every year the budgets proposed for the National Endowment for the Arts and its sister institution, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Surely those agencies were front of mind for the President at that moment. In fact, the President had opened his remarks by waving hello to NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman and NEH Chairman Jim Leach. “As long as I am President,” the President said of the arts and humanities, “I look forward to making them a priority for this country.” Thus occurred the only moment during the event in which the President received applause equal in force to those of the award recipients.

Obama’s closing remarks were pedestrian, as he played the thankless role of event coordinator. He told the attendees that they should make their way through the double doors directly in front of him to the Entrance Hall, where a reception awaited them. “The food is usually pretty good around here,” Obama said, receiving the polite humor we give our politicians when they attempt levity.

The crowd gave one final standing ovation for the award winners, and a disembodied voice informed us we were not to move until the President and First Lady had left the room. Barack and Michelle walked down the center aisle and exited through those double doors, followed by the honorees. There would be no reception for those of us behind the gold rope, and the Secret Service wouldn’t move the ropes aside until most of the room had cleared. So I stepped up onto the platform reserved for the television cameras and took in the scene.

Audience members posed for pictures, many making sure the President’s podium—complete with Presidential seal—was in frame. A gaggle of fans made their way to Alfre Woodard, and she gamely posed with each grouping, her smile perfect in each shot.

That harmonious vibrancy I had been savoring began to dissipate. A young White House staffer in a black suit and lavender tie began dismantling the podium. The sound of ripping Velcro echoed off a gold-framed mirror as videographers and photographers opened canvas bags to store their cameras and tripods. I lingered, taking photographs. Perhaps my camera could capture that slipping specter of creative tranquility.

“You need to clear the room,” said a broad-shouldered man in a crew cut. A twisty cord descended from his ear into his suit jacket. While I was looking through my camera’s view finder, nearly every other reporter had exited. I nodded and turned to leave. Ever since September 11th, we Washingtonians have learned to recognize those with whom we cannot argue.

The only way to exit the East Room and reach the North Portico doors is to pass through the Entrance Hall. The reception was in full force. Some wore red sashes, others purple, but nearly all had glasses of red wine in hand. My camera was still in my hand, so I snapped a quick picture. A stout man with a badge and a gun stepped in front of me, his hands cupped at his belt. I knew the drill. He had every right to confiscate my camera. The reception was not open to press; it was an opportunity for our nation’s cultural and intellectual celebrities to relax without cameras in their faces. But I believe the harmony of the event had carried itself into the Entrance Hall. The officer raised his right hand. But he didn’t reach out for my camera. He waved me on, a slight smile forming on one side of his face.

The sound of angry chanting reached my ears when I walked down the steps of the North Portico into the White House’s curving entry driveway. A crowd of protesters shouted and banged drums. They were just beyond the White House fence, taking up a significant segment of what had been Pennsylvania Avenue before it was converted to a pedestrian plaza after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. These individuals were protesting the government of China, and I recalled reading that morning that the President would be meeting Tuesday with the man slated to be that country’s next Premier. The bubble of connection that had enveloped the East Room had popped. Discord ruled once again.

I made my way back to the James Brady Briefing Room, a room much smaller than it appears on television. I retrieved my overcoat and laptop and headed out once again into the cold. This time I was ready for the protestors. I looked away, my eyes focused on the White House lawn, a remarkably vivid green for early February. Leaves of Grass, I thought, realizing the President had put Walt Whitman front of mind.

And it struck me. I didn’t need to linger in the East Room to hold onto the harmonious magic of connection. I could return to that moment in the poetry of Dove, in the scholarship of Appiah. I could accept the gifts of those celebrated leaders of the arts and humanities. I could find inspiration in their own works, and learn how to sing my own soul’s song.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

13 Responses to “My Back-Row View of the White House Arts and Humanities Awards”

  1. Wow, Patrick. What an incredible experience. Thank you so much for sharing with us. In such a truly divisive era, art is more important now than ever. I’m glad there’s an event like this honoring artists’ contributions.

    I’m pretty sure the president has a poetic soul himself. “It’s true that we all have songs in our soul that are only ours.” I love that!

    • It was a moving line, Sion. He delivered it with passion. I will say, though, it is likely one of his anonymous speechwriters who is so gifted with turns of phrase! (He says as someone who has ghosted more than a few policymaker speeches… )

  2. Hey, Patrick… so nice to hear the kind of writing you do in your day job. Very nice! I got the poignancy of the event for you. Poignant to all us writers. Very nice indeed.

  3. I love the back and forth of Obama’s speech and what was going on with you and then with your daughter. Beautiful. And what a lovely line – “…songs in our souls that are only ours.”

    What an incredible experience! Thanks for recording it for us!

  4. Thank you for sharing the ceremony — awesome! (And so jealous!)

    I loved your description of your daughter’s drawing… when my artistic son applied to college, he also doodled his way through studying for SATs and the application process — often sketching a young man surrounded by the pressures he was feeling. On one application, he was asked to submit something personal that he had written or drawn — I have never seen anyone light up so much. He sketched the young man surrounded by the personifications of his worries. I believe your daughter, too — stressful times, those.

    • Wow, Julia, that’s a great story, it’s helpful to hear. And I think that’s very intriguing that a college application invited a drawing should one wish to submit one; that’s some creative thinking on the part of the admissions office.

      Glad you liked the post!

  5. I feel so lucky to get to attend this event through the words of a creative nonfiction master!🙂 I love the way you allowed us inside your head without taking us out of the situation. I would have wondered about those expressionless guards too. And I might really have to restrain myself to keep from tickling one of them!

    • Not sure about “master,” but I’m not going to object, either! I wonder if my MFA advisors would use that term!

      Sue, were you to tickle anyone in authority at the White House, you would find yourself in restraints!🙂

      • Doesn’t a *Master* of Fine Arts degree qualify you as a master? But I realize you haven’t actually been given the crown yet. Still, in my world where you can tickle the president’s bodyguards, you already are!

  6. What an amazing experience and description of this event! I wish I could have been there! I love how you were able to connect the ceremony to your life and your soul with your beautiful writing. Thank you for capturing this for those of us who could not be there.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Creativity Tweets of the Week – 02/24/12 « The Artist's Road - February 24, 2012

    […] As both a fan and occasional practitioner of long-form journalism (my quasi-journalistic post on my recent White House visit ran nearly 3,000 words), this column pleased me […]

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