Remarks at a White House Reception for Kennedy Center Honorees


December 4, 1988


Well, we've already said good evening, but maybe I'll say it again. And welcome to the White House. For the past 8 years, I've had the pleasure of joining with the Kennedy Center in honoring those Americans -- 57 now -- whose contributions to our national culture have been more precious than the most precious assets and rubies. And so, this night is a time for reflection and nostalgia, as well as celebration of the five great Americans that we honor tonight.


It was my great fortune to participate in the glory years of an unparalleled form of popular art: the movies. So, I know, both as a participant and spectator, the allure and power of the performing arts. I know also how difficult it is to explain what it is that makes performing such an unforgettable experience. There's one other thing I know about performing: Performers are judged by a more exacting standard. And those who rise to the very top know with absolute assurance that no special favor, no special help, no special anything can account for their success. No, they've made it because the world has judged them and has judged their talents and their energies and has determined in the court of public opinion that they're superior -- or better than superior, that they're great.


Sasha Schneider, the word ``great'' has been applied so often to you that it seems redundant to use it here. But as President, I guess I have a prerogative. [Laughter] As a violinist, you have performed the works of every major Western composer with your fine and delicate touch, which can move with the startling brio of the ``Flight of the Bumble Bee'' or the languorous romanticism of Schubert's ``Death and the Maiden.'' Conductor, teacher, organizer -- you have shared your peerless understanding of classical music in many, many different ways. This century would have been all the poorer without you, and we're all the richer for having listened and learned from you.


And, Alvin Ailey, what can I say about you that has not already been said? You brought a new vocabulary to the dance, a vocabulary of sinuous grace and astonishing rhythmic variety. And like Sasha Schneider, you were not content merely to bring your bounties before us, but also insisted on educating others and bringing them before us as well. And the world of dance has been transfigured by your part in it.


Roger Stevens is not a performer, but literally thousands of performers owe their careers to him. As a producer, he brought hundreds of plays to the boards, delightful musical comedies and difficult modernist works alike. He helped build a national cultural center here on the banks of the Po- tomac and was the founding father of the National Endowment for the Arts. I think it's fair to say few Americans have done as much for the performing arts.


And as a performer, the lovely and mysterious Myrna Loy has always conveyed a sense of great ease and comfort, as though she were possessed of answers to questions you hadn't even thought of asking in the first place. [Laughter] She could play Nora Charles, the most sophisticated woman in New York, or she could play an oriental temptress, both with equal conviction. And she made it all look easy, which I don't need to tell all of you is perhaps the most difficult chore of all.


And then there is George Burns. George Burns -- the only man in America that's older than I am. [Laughter] The only thing I can't figure out is how George manages to appear with Johnny Carson so often. I'm always in bed when he's on. [Laughter]


 Seriously, when you talk about George Burns, you're talking about one of the most remarkable Americans of our century, a living and breathing history of our popular arts, from vaudeville to radio to the movies and television. And for all I know, he's even made a rock video or two. [Laughter] It's almost an anticlimax that at the age of 92 he's got the number one best selling book in America right now. That book is about his late and great wife, Gracie Allen. And with his characteristic modesty, he probably thinks that half the honor being bestowed upon him belongs to her. But tonight, George, I have to say with all due respect to Gracie, this one is all for you and your breathtaking fourscore as an entertainer. You've given so much to America. You've gladdened so many hearts. We, all of us, thank you.


I'm going to do something I shouldn't do, I know, but I just have to do. This man -- 2 years ago when he reached 90, a friend said to him, ``Well, how did it feel to be 90?'' And I have to tell your answer to him. He said, ``In the morning I get up. I go down and out on the porch and get the paper. I look at the obituaries. And if I'm not there, I go in and have a cup of coffee.'' [Laughter]


Well, George, and Myrna, and Roger, and Alvin, and Sasha, this night is yours. But it's a night for all Americans to celebrate the glories that you've given us. And I can't think of a better way to conclude my ceremonial role in these festivities than to pray that God may bless you and keep you all the days of your life.


Note: The President spoke at 6:20 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. Following the reception, the President and Mrs. Reagan attended the annual gala at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.