How Obama turned a White House medals ceremony into a stand-up routine

For decades, presidential conferral of the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal has been an august occasion, full of pomp and ceremony.

That’s not exactly how it went Thursday – and President Barack Obama blamed it on honoree Mel Brooks. One reference to “Blazing Saddles,” and the whole thing went off the rails.

At the start of the event, Obama singled out that “great film” as an example of the creative freedom that Brooks and other artists bring to their work. Brooks, the president related, told his staff as they worked on the raunchy script: “Write anything you want, because we will never be heard from again. We will all be arrested for this movie.”

As the president honored 24 renowned individuals and institutions for their contributions to the nation, he made a couple of serious observations on how the medal recipients had used different mediums to shape Americans’ perceptions of each other. “And that, I think, is what the arts and the humanities do – they lift up our identities, and make us see ourselves in each other. And today’s honorees each possess a gift for this kind of creative empathy – a gift that allows us to exchange a sense of what’s most important and most profound in us, and to identify with our collective experience as Americans.”

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But for the most part, his comedic riff continued. The group included a veritable list of NPR favorites: “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross, composer Philip Glass; actors Morgan Freeman, Luis Valdez and Audra McDonald; and authors Sandra Cisneros, Rudolfo Anaya, Ron Chernow, James McBride, Louis Menand, Elaine Pagels, Abraham Verghese and Isabel Wilkerson.

“Now, along with Mel, we have an impressive crew with us here today. We’ve got Terry Gross, and a whole bunch of people who Terry Gross has interviewed,” Obama observed, accurately capturing the crowd’s curated demographic.

While getting the president to drape a medal around your neck is a high honor, two of the artists singled out by the White House couldn’t make it in person. Obama lamented that composer and musician Wynton Marsalis was not there, “And Morgan Freeman, who undoubtedly is off playing a black president again. He never lets me have my moment.”

And even once his formal remarks were finished, Obama couldn’t resist cracking a joke when the military officer could not locate the citation that lauded McDonald for the fact that “her rich, soulful voice continues to take her audiences to new heights,” prompting a delay.

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“I can make up the citation,” the president offered at one point, prompting laughter.

“Let’s do that,” the military aide replied. “Let’s do that, sir.”

“I’m glad Audra’s already a good friend of mine,” he quipped, as the crowd chortled. “So the fact that they kind of left out the citation, I think she’ll forgive me.”

“And I do think Mel Brooks kind of set the tone for this thing, because, historically, this has been a much more staid affair,” he added, as the audience laughed again. “But somehow, I think my quote of him in the beginning, it threw everything off.”

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The president’s comments didn’t amuse everyone. On Thursday afternoon, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., tweeted that they struck a sour note given the ongoing racial unrest in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Obama jokes about race after two consecutive nights of hoodlums rioting in #Charlotte. Outrageous” he wrote.


–Mel Brooks, actor, comedian and writer (New York)

–Sandra Cisneros, author (San Antonio)

–Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, theater company (Waterford, Connecticut)

–Morgan Freeman, actor (Charleston, Mississippi)

–Philip Glass, composer (New York)

–Berry Gordy, record producer and songwriter (Los Angeles)

–Santiago Jiménez Jr., musician (San Antonio)

–Moises Kaufman, director and playwright (New York)

–Ralph Lemon, dancer, choreographer, writer and visual artist (Brooklyn)

–Audra McDonald, actress and singer (Croton-on-Hudson/New York)

–Luis Valdez, playwright, actor, writer and director (San Juan Bautista, California)

–Jack Whitten, painter (New York)


–Rudolfo Anaya, author (Albuquerque)

–José Andrés, chef and entrepreneur (Bethesda, Maryland)

–Ron Chernow, author (Brooklyn)

–Louise Glück, poet (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

–Terry Gross, radio host and producer (Philadelphia)

–Wynton Marsalis, composer and musician (New York)

–James McBride, author (Lambertville, New Jersey)

–Louis Menand, author (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

–Elaine Pagels, historian and author (Princeton, New Jersey)

–Prison University Project, higher education program (San Quentin, California)

–Abraham Verghese, physician, professor and author (Menlo Park, California)

–Isabel Wilkerson, journalist and author (Atlanta)