THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you, everybody. Everybody, thank you so much, please have a seat, have a seat.
Well, what a good looking crowd. (Laughter.) Say -- we do what we can, huh? (Laughter.) Happy holidays, everybody. And on behalf of Michelle and myself, I want to welcome all of you to the White House.
And I want to start by giving special thanks to Speaker Pelosi and all the other members of Congress who are here. Nobody has done more for our country over the last couple of years than Nancy Pelosi. (Applause.)
None of this would be possible without some people who have put great effort into this evening -- David Rubenstein, Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center trustees, and all the people who have made the Kennedy Center such a wonderful place for Americans of all ages to enjoy the arts.
And on that note, I also want to give special thanks to Caroline Kennedy. Where’s -- is Caroline here tonight? Hey, Caroline. (Applause.) And all the other members of the Kennedy family who are here tonight -- it’s wonderful to see them.
And finally, I want to recognize the co-chairs of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities –- my good friend, George Stevens. (Applause.) George and his son Michael are the brains behind the Kennedy Center Honors, and I want to thank them all for their great creativity.
This is a season of celebration and of giving. And that’s why it’s my great privilege as President to honor the five men and women who have given our nation the extraordinary gift of the arts.
The arts have always had the power to challenge and the power to inspire –- to help us celebrate in times of joy and find hope in times of trouble. And although the honorees on this stage each possess a staggering amount of talent, the truth is, they aren’t being recognized tonight simply because of their careers as great lyricists or songwriters or dancers or entertainers. Instead, they’re being honored for their unique ability to bring us closer together and to capture something larger about who we are –- not just as Americans, but as human beings.
That’s what Merle Haggard has been doing for more than 40 years. Often called the “poet of the common man,” Merle likes to say that he’s living proof that things can go wrong in America, but also that things can go right. (Laughter.)
In a day and age when so many country singers claim to be rambling, gambling outlaws, Merle actually is one. (Laughter and applause.) He hopped his first freight train at the age of 10, and was locked up some 17 times as a boy -– pulling off almost as many escapes.
Later, after becoming a bona fide country star, Merle met Johnny Cash, and mentioned that he had seen Cash perform years earlier at San Quentin prison. “That’s funny,” Cash said, “because I don’t remember you being in the show.” (Laughter.) And Merle had to explain the Man in Black that he hadn’t been in the show, he had been in the audience. (Laughter.)
That performance had inspired Merle to start writing songs, and he’s written thousands of them since -– about three or four hundred “keepers” in Merle’s opinion. Thirty eight of those songs have been number one on the charts, including “Okie from Muskogee,” which he performed for Richard Nixon right here in this room back in 1973.
Through it all, Merle’s power has always come from the truth he tells -– about life and love and everything in between. As he says, “the best songs feel like they’ve always been there.” So tonight we honor a man who feels like he’s always been here -– Merle Haggard. (Applause.)
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