Here's what President Obama had to say today at the Kennedy Center Honors Reception in the East Room. This years honorees are Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, guitarist Buddy Guy, ballerina Natalia Makarova and British rockers Led Zeppelin.
THE PRESIDENT: Everybody, please have a seat. (Applause.) Thank you very much. Thank you. Well, good evening, everybody. You all look lovely. (Laughter.) Welcome to the White House on a night when I am nowhere close to being the main attraction.
Thank you, David Rubenstein, Michael Kaiser and the Kennedy Center trustees, and everyone who has worked so hard to uphold President Kennedy’s commitment to supporting the arts. I also want to recognize another of President Kennedy’s amazing legacies, and that is his wonderful daughter Caroline, who is here tonight. (Applause.)
None of this would be possible without the co-chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, George Stevens -- where is George, there he is -- (applause) -- and his son Michael -- where did Michael go, there he is -- (applause) -- who have produced the Kennedy Center Honors for 35 years now.
Tonight, we continue a tradition here at the White House by honoring some extraordinary people who have no business being on the same stage together. (Laughter.) We’ve got Buddy Guy sitting next to Dustin Hoffman. (Laughter.) We've got Dave Letterman alongside one of the greatest ballerinas of all time. I don't think Dave dances. (Laughter.) All three living members of Led Zeppelin in one place -- (applause) -- so this is a remarkable evening.
And it speaks to something that has always made this country great -- the idea that here in America, more than any other place on Earth, we are free to follow our own passions, explore our own gifts, wherever they may lead us. And people from all around the world come here to make sure that they too can provide us the incredible gifts that they have.
Tonight’s honorees didn’t just take up their crafts to make a living. They did it because they couldn’t imagine living any other way. That passion took each of them from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of their profession. Tonight, in the People’s House, we have a chance to say thank you.
Growing up as the son of a sharecropper in Louisiana, Buddy Guy made his first guitar out of wires from a window screen -- that worked until his parents started wondering how all the mosquitos were getting in. (Laughter.) But Buddy was hooked, and a few years later, he bought a one-way ticket to Chicago to find his heroes -- Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Pretty soon he was broke, hungry and ready to head home. And then, one night outside a blues club, a man pulled up and handed Buddy a salami sandwich and said, “I’m Mud,” and "you ain’t goin’ nowhere.” And that was the start of something special.
Of course, success hasn’t changed the humble country boy who used to milk cows on a farm outside Baton Rouge. Buddy tells a story about his son Greg wanting to learn to play the guitar like Prince. Buddy told him he’d better learn some Jimi Hendrix first. (Laughter.) It was only after watching a TV special on Hendrix that Greg found out Jimi had borrowed some licks from his dad. So Greg said, "I didn’t know you could play like that.” And Buddy said, "You never asked.” (Laughter.)
Today, Buddy is still going strong -- one of the last guardians of the great American blues. And on a personal note, I will never forget Buddy playing “Sweet Home Chicago” in this very room back in February and him, and a few others, forcing me to sing along -- (laughing) -- which was just okay. (Laughter.) There aren’t too many people who can get me to sing, but Buddy was one of them. And so we are so glad that we can honor him tonight. Congratulations, Buddy Guy. (Applause.)
When “The Graduate” was originally written, the main character was supposed to be Robert Redford -- a tall, blond track star. And when Dustin Hoffman auditioned for the part, a crew member handed him a subway token on his way out, saying, “here, kid, you’re gonna need this.” (Laughter.)
Dustin ended up getting the role and it launched one of the greatest movie careers of his generation, of any generation. Most actors dream of being in maybe one film that becomes part of our cultural vocabulary. Dustin churned out “Midnight Cowboy,” “Tootsie,” “Rain Man,” “Hook” -- not bad for a guy who signed up for his first acting class after a friend told him, “nobody flunks acting, it’s like gym.” (Laughter.)
Still, I imagine one secret to his success is his inability to see himself as anything but an underdog. Even after “The Graduate” became a runaway success, Dustin says, “I really believed that was a fluke and I refused to believe I had arrived. And in a way, I’ve been hanging on by my fingertips for the entire ride.
Well, Dustin, you’ll be glad to know that this award was not supposed to go to Robert Redford. (Laughter.) He’s already got one. (Laughter.) So tonight we honor Dustin Hoffman -- an actor who has finally arrived. He's made it. (Applause.) He's made it. (Applause.)
If you ask David Letterman what's it like to tape his show, he'll say, “if it’s going well, it just lifts you. If it’s not going well, it sinks you. It’s exhilarating. It’s my favorite hour of the day.” It’s unclear how Dave feels about this hour. It’s different when you’re not the one with the mic, isn’t it, Dave? (Laughter.) You're looking a little stressed, aren't you? (Laughter.) I'd also point out it's a lot warmer here than it is on Dave's set. (Laughter.)