Kennedy Center honors Springsteen, De Niro, others

WASHINGTON (AP) - December 7, 2009

With those words, President Barack Obama greeted Bruce Springsteen Sunday night at a White House reception before the iconic rocker was lauded with Kennedy Center Honors along with Robert De Niro, comic genius Mel Brooks, jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck and opera singer Grace Bumbry

A surprise list of stars will perform for the artists who are receiving the honors that recognize individuals who have defined American culture through the arts as a living memorial to John F. Kennedy. The night attracts power players from Washington and Hollywood, including the president, first lady Michelle Obama, who was seated next to Springsteen, and Vice President Joe Biden.

About 300 guests, including Jack Black, Edward Norton, Matthew Broderick, Ben Stiller, Martin Scorsese, Sting, Philip Seymour Hoffman were at the reception in the East Room of the White House.

"These performers are indeed the best," Obama said. "They are also living reminders of a single truth - and I'm going to steal a line from Michelle here - the arts are not somehow apart from our national life, the arts are the heart of our national life."

Springsteen, 60, described the award he received on Saturday night at a State Department dinner as different than other accolades.

"We worked really hard for our music to be part of American life and our fans' lives," he said. "So it's an acknowledgment that you've kind of threaded your way into the culture in a certain way. It's satisfying."

The show will air nationwide Dec. 29 on CBS.

When Stiller came out to honor De Niro, he got distracted.

"Oh my God, it's Bruce Springsteen!" he said. "Bruuuuce!"

Melissa Ethridge said she will perform for Springsteen, singing "Born to Run."

She desribed him as "the most delightful human being" and the epitome of a great performer.

"He's got it all."

State Department officials would not say whether security for the Saturday event had been heightened after a Virginia couple recently sneaked into a White House State dinner. The gala is Obama's first big event since Micheale and Tareq Salahi slipped past White House security on Nov. 24. The Secret Service runs security for Kennedy Center events the president attends, and everyone who enters must have a ticket that will be checked at the door.

On the red carpet Sunday, Katie Couric said she talked to the Salahis quite a bit at the dinner and joked that everyone is going to be on the lookout for party crashers.

"I think security is a little tighter here," she said.

Carol Burnett led a series of toasts at a more private celebration for the honorees Saturday after a dinner for about 200 hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Several of the honorees, Clinton said, have been at the forefront of cultural diplomacy. Brubeck, who turned 89 on Sunday, was sent abroad in the Cold War, she said, to serve as an ambassador with his music in countries teetering between democracy and communism.

And Springsteen played a rock concert in East Berlin for 160,000 people just 16 months before the Berlin Wall fell - a concert many Germans remember 20 years later, Clinton said.

"In every time and every culture, artists have lit the way toward progress," she said. "They've helped to provide a common language, a fabric that weaves us together as human beings."

Then there's the more irreverent arts. Even the mention of Brooks' number "Springtime for Hitler" from "The Producers" was enough to draw chuckles.

Brooks, 83, said it's special to receive the honor during the Obama administration. He said he'll whisper something in the president's ear about the need for more federal funding for the arts.

"I think when all my awards go to e-Bay, it will be the last," Brooks said of the Kennedy Center medallion. "That's how much I treasure it."

Obama joked that "unfortunately, many of the punch lines that have defined Mel Brooks' success cannot be repeated here."

"But behind all the insanity and absurdity, there's been a method to Mel's madness," he said. "By illuminating uncomfortable truths - about racism and sexism and anti-Semitism - he's been called 'our jester, asking us to see ourselves as we really are, determined that we laugh ourselves sane."'

Many workers and guests were even more gaga Saturday over seeing Matthew Morrison from TV's "Glee." They recognized him as Mr. Schuster, the high school teacher and glee club coach from the Fox show.

Morrison said he was elated to visit Washington to help honor Brooks.

"I like crossing the line every now and then, and he's kind of the master of crossing that line, being a little offensive at times," Morrison said. "The man is a living legend."

Journalist Barbara Walters sat with Clinton and turned heads when she arrived as actor Frank Langella's date.

Former President Bill Clinton, a saxophone player, offered a moving toast for Brubeck. He said he first saw Brubeck's quartet in concert when he was about 15 years old and was "utterly captivated."

Obama said his father took him a Brubeck show in Honolulu in 1971, and that he's "been a jazz fan ever since."

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