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Secretary Antony J. Blinken At the Kennedy Center Honors Dinner

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good evening, everyone.  Welcome.  Welcome to the State Department.  Welcome to what is for us an incredibly special evening.  The Kennedy Center Honors is one of our favorite events of the year.  Actually, I’ll let you in on a secret:  It’s our favorite.  (Applause.)

Deborah Rutter, to you and the Kennedy Center board, whose innovative, inclusive vision honors President Kennedy’s belief that art is not just a resuscitation of the past but rather the search for new ways of expressing the present and the future, we’re so grateful for everything you do to continue to inspire our nation.

We have remarkable guests at every table.  But if you’ll allow me just a moment – or, as we say, a point of personal privilege – there are some close colleagues from the United States Congress who are here tonight that I’d like to acknowledge at the top.  Senator Pat Leahy.  (Applause.)  Chairman Greg Meeks.  (Applause.)  Ranking Member Mike McCaul.  (Applause.)  Mike and I both know about three chords on the guitar, and we’re threatening to play them.  (Laughter.)  And last but not least, the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.  (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, normally – normally – that would be the culmination.  But we also have Paul Pelosi here too.  (Applause.)  We could not be happier to see you, Paul.

And thank you also to our MC for the evening, a certain Garth Brooks.  (Applause.)  Garth is no stranger to the Kennedy Center Honors.  He’s also played for nearly every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter, when Garth was very small, and, of course, President Biden’s inauguration.  So it’s wonderful to have you.  So tonight, Garth, we’re going to give you a break.  You just get to sit back and hand out some medals.  (Laughter.)  But if you feel compelled to maybe sing Amazing Grace (inaudible).  (Laughter.)

The Kennedy Center Honors is an institution, the premier celebration of American cultural life, and it would not be complete without the presence of another living institution, David Rubenstein.  (Applause.)  Now, we would be here all night if I went through the extraordinary list of philanthropic endeavors that David’s been behind over many years, but let me just mention one, because it’s particularly relevant to this evening.  Earlier tonight, many of you passed through the John Quincy Adams Room, where displayed is a national treasure, one of just 201 surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence, commissioned by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams more than two centuries ago.  It was loaned to the department by David, and we are so grateful to have it.  We’re grateful to have you.  (Applause.)

So it’s particularly wonderful to have all of you in the Benjamin Franklin Room.  Ben is looking down on us right now.  (Laughter.)  Many of you have been here before; it’s great to have you back.  Now, Ben Franklin, of course, was our nation’s first diplomat.  He charted the Gulf Stream, pioneered electricity; he gave us our ethos of self-government.  And virtually none of this did he do while sober.  (Laughter.)  Story has it that when Ben went to France to negotiate our first alliance, before he went, he would extol the virtues of going to bed early.  But then as ambassador to France, he said, and I quote, “Wine is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”  (Laughter.)  So this will be (inaudible).

Franklin was also an inventor of an early musical instrument, the armonica, made from – you guessed it – wine glasses.  So I strongly encourage you to use your glasses in the more traditional manner tonight, but we do have one of the world’s greatest composers here, Tania León, so if folks want to stay behind and get together for an after party, maybe you can compose something with the glasses.  (Laughter.)

So, as America’s first diplomat, Franklin understood that the bonds between nations are not just forged by governments but by people, and sometimes those connections take root a little deeper when they come in the form of a song or a symphony, a painting or a performance, instead of, let’s say, maybe a speech by the Secretary of State.  That’s why cultural diplomacy is such a key pillar of our work here at the State Department.

Our Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs harnesses the power of education exchanges, sports, and the arts to build bridges between the Americas and people around the world.  I’m a true believer in these programs, and even if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have a choice because my wife used to run the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (inaudible).  (Applause.)  And I’m so pleased that we’re joined by the current Assistant Secretary of State Lee Satterfield.  (Applause.)

So the bottom line is this:  This room, made for our first ambassador, is a fitting place to celebrate honorees who are diplomats themselves.  Their art forges the connections that transcend language, that transcend nationality, that resonate deeply with people across oceans and continents.  Ultimately, these artists remind us of our common humanity, that no matter who we are or where we’re from, we can and we are all moved by the arts.  You don’t have to speak English to feel something when you listen to Midnight Train to Georgia.  (Laughter.)  And Gladys, I hear the back and forth, the call and response between you and the Pips in my head all the time.

In a world where there are few big problems that the United States can solve alone, we can’t lose sight of this universal connection.  The arts give us language to talk about the aspirations that we all hold, the emotions that we share, the challenges that we face.  As Secretary, I’ve been fortunate to travel the world and see up close how the arts can communicate across borders.

One example.  Earlier this fall in Bogotá, Colombia, I visited a museum called Fragmentos, or fragments, constructed after the end of Colombia’s five-decades-long civil war.  Under Colombia’s peace accord, it was agreed that guns would be turned over, they’d be melted down, and they’d be used to create war memorials.  But the sculptor thought it was wrong to create a traditional vertical monument made of weapons that people would have to look up at and admire, so she came up with the idea of melting down the munitions to become the floor of the gallery.  Women who were victims of sexual assault during the war volunteered to pound the metals – pound them into tiles using mallets.  Today, visitors walk on the guns and it’s the people, not the war combatants, who have the power.

When words fail, it’s often heart that speaks to us most eloquently.  So now I want to show you just for a couple of minutes how inadequate words can be as I introduce our exceptional nominees.  In this line of work, I occasionally get to meet some royalty, as well as heads of state, but few can compare to the empress of soul.  Gladys Knight has belted out the soundtrack to our lives for decades, ever since making her musical debut at the ripe age of four.  Deploying that extraordinary voice – its honesty, its emotion, its intensity, to doo-wop to Motown to 70s soul and gospel, Ms. Knight has made music that’s mended hearts, lifted spirits, and sometimes just plain made us dance.  Her legacy endures in her music and the progress that she forged for civil rights over so many years, and in the generations of artists that she continues to inspire.

Michael Clayton; Up in the Air; Descendants; Three Kings; Out of Sight – I could go on.  And that doesn’t even cover all of George Clooney’s Oscar wins.  George manages to be both an old-school movie star and an exceptional actor with amazing range.  Now, for most people, winning multiple Academy Awards and Golden Globes would be a career-defining feat, but in George’s case it’s only one of many extraordinary achievements.  George is the rare star who swivels the spotlight away from himself and onto some of the most vexing issues of our day.  He’s relentless in pursuit of justice.  His Clooney Foundation for Justice, launched with Amal, is monitoring criminal trials, supporting the prosecution of war crimes, providing legal aid around the world.  George is the living embodiment of a maxim handed down to him by his dad, Nick, who’s here tonight – thank you.  (Applause.)  As Nick told George, always challenge anyone in power and always defend anyone without power.

Tania León’s music defies categorization, weaving together traditions from Harlem to the (inaudible).  Her works touch on themes from women’s suffrage, integration, to the brutality of military rule.  And in any of her 40 chamber works, 10 orchestral pieces, six ballets, you’re as likely to hear instruments like the marimba, the djembe, the bongos as you are to hear flutes and oboes and bassoons.  Now, I’m told that on hearing some of her earliest compositions, Ms. León’s father asked her:  Where are you in your music?  If you listen, you will find her radiant presence in everything that she’s composed ever since.

When Amy Grant was just 15, a record producer heard her demo.  It was so good that he couldn’t wait to mail it to his boss, so he picked up the tape recorder, put it next to the phone, and Amy got an offer on the spot.  Today, Amy Grant is known as the Queen of Christian pop, with 30 million albums sold, a billion global streams, six Grammys, plus stars on three separate walks of fame.  Her message of compassion, the overwhelming warmth when she sings, the sheer joy that radiates from everything she does have made her, throughout the United States and beyond, a household name.  Now, I’ve got to add that with Vince Gill as part of your household guitar, (inaudible) star power to spare.  Resilient, welcoming, generous on and off the stage, Amy Grant reminds us that no matter the challenges we face, we can all be channels for light and for good in the world.

When the top award for contributions to American cultural life goes to a bunch of guys from Ireland, well, they must be something special.  (Laughter.)  Guitar, bass, drums, vocals – as simple as that, as soaring as that.  Anthemic singalongs, ballads of tremendous tenderness, a global audience for nearly 50 years.  Now I should say: guitar, bass, drums, vocals – my group had that too, but – (laughter) – somehow it doesn’t quite sound the same.  But here’s the thing.  U2 has always fused soft power with hard rock, not only through iconic songs but also through their commitment to social justice and human dignity, which is inseparable from their music.  Few musical groups have been as outspoken, as committed, as effective in taking on some of the toughest global challenges.

U2 has forged a legacy that transcends the realm of music.  President Kennedy wrote that, and I quote, “Behind the storm of daily conflict and crisis, the dramatic confrontations, the tumult of political struggle, the poet, the artist…continues the quiet work of centuries, building bridges of experience between peoples, reminding [us] of the universality of [our] feelings and desires and despairs…reminding [us] that the forces that unite are deeper than [the forces] that divide.”

The artists that we celebrate tonight have done just that.  They’ve connected us; they’ve uplifted us; they have strengthened us.  Whatever we may face as a global community, whatever the challenges, whatever the realities, the opportunities of this moment, we do it fortified by the beauty, by the inspiration, by the power of these outstanding artists.  And it is quite simply a joy to honor you tonight.

Welcome, everyone, and have a great evening.  (Applause.)