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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 8, 1996
                        REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
                              The East Room     

5:48 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, and welcome to the White House. Every year, Hillary and I look forward to the Kennedy Center Honorees coming here, especially because this is such a great season of celebration. Tonight we pay tribute to five performing artists whose work has transformed the landscape of American art.

America is more than the land we live on. It is even more than its people. It is an ideal. Our artists express that ideal and give voice to the common experience. They are the singers of the American soul. Their art challenges us and deepens our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. It is my privilege to welcome them, along with their families and friends, to the White House.

Edward Albee's life epitomizes the rebellious spirit of art. Maybe I ought to repeat that. (Laughter.) From childhood, he challenged convention. He left college for the streets of New York where he worked by day and wrote by night. For 10 years he pursued his art with single-minded purpose, but without recognition.

Then, in only three weeks in 1958, he wrote a play that took the American theater by storm and changed it forever. "Zoo Story," a play about a young drifter and a well-to-do stranger who meet on a lonely park bench. It was the first of many plays by Edward Albee that dared us to look at ourselves in the same stark light he turned on our fears, our failings and our dreams. For over 40 years, his work has defied convention and set a standard of innovation that few can match. From "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," to "Tiny Alice," to "Three Tall Women," his plays have invigorated the American theater and inspired a new generation of playwrights to do the same.

Tonight our nation -- born in rebellion -- pays tribute to you, Edward Albee. In your rebellion, the American theater was reborn. (Applause.)

Bennett Leslie Carter was born in the tough New York neighborhood that became the site of the Lincoln Center, where eight decades later he would be cheered to the rafters. From the small clubs of the Harlem Renaissance where he began playing saxophone to world tours for the biggest of the big bands, Benny Carter redefined American jazz. From the start, his fellow musicians said the way he played the sax was amazing. They say that about me, too. (Laughter.) But I don't think they mean it in quite the same way. (Laughter.)

Benny Carter's influence on jazz is immeasurable. Whether he played with them or not, all the great bands used his arrangements. He virtually arranged the Swing era, and his rhythms have set feet tapping all over the world. Indeed, on our recent trip to Thailand when Hillary and I visited with the King and Queen, the King, as some of you may know, is one of the world's greatest jazz fans, and three minutes after I was introduced to him, he said, now, do you know Benny Carter? He was just here. (Laughter.)

His sounds have suffused American films and television, from Busby Berkley to the Marx Brothers, from "Stormy Weather," to "Hannah and Her Sisters." And he brought jazz to the Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall, ensuring its rightful place in our cultural pantheon. Benny's popularity is as strong as ever. He was named Jazz Artist of the Year in his '80s. And this year, at 89, he has performed from Bangkok to Boston. (Applause.) We are grateful that he -- we're glad he was willing to take the weekend off -- (laughter) -- to receive our nation's standing ovation. Thank you, Benny Carter. (Applause.)

Johnny Cash grew up chopping cotton in a small town in southeast Arkansas. Every Sunday in a little church, he was transported by gospel music from the hard world he knew to a far horizon. And he transformed the trouble he had known into gruff music of ache, heart and hope, even against the odds. He was still just a kid in the Army when he wrote "Folsom Prison Blues," and just out of the service when "I Walk the Line" hit the charts. Fifty million records and 27 albums later, Johnny Cash has redefined the boundaries of country music. He is the loner, the man in black. A hard edged writer with a soft heart. With his wife, the very gifted June Carter Cash, and family often by his side, he has traveled all over the world to give a voice to the feelings of farmers and workers, prisoners and lovers.

From the Heartland of America, he sung for the people who are the heart of America. Through his music, he has proved again and again the redeeming power of struggle and faith. And he has made country music not just music for our country, but for the entire world. Johnny Cash, you have our applause, our admiration and we have your records. (Laughter and applause.)

Jack Lemmon first appeared on the stage at the age of four. He had just one line -- "Hark. A pistol shot." -- (Laughter.) The audience laughed then, too. (Laughter.) And a star was born. Consumed with a passion for performing, the young Jack Lemmon didn't have much time for books. Even at Harvard, he spent more time writing songs than essays. But he was preparing himself for a different future, studying to become one of the most gifted actors of our time.

Once called "a clown for the age of anxiety," Jack Lemmon embodies a typically American sense of humor -- fresh, irreverent, wryly optimistic, even when the chips are down. From "Mister Roberts," to "Some Like It Hot," to "Grumpy Old Men, I and II," he is at once a hilarious everyman and a complete original. And in dramatic works like "Missing," and "Glengary, Glen Ross," he has taken the kind of risks that elevate an actor's work from the unremarkable to the unforgettable.

Now, you know he is portraying a former President of the United States in a new movie, "My Fellow Americans." A president, I might add, of the other party -- (laughter) -- but I'd still like to have points from Jack Lemmon any day, and America thanks you, Jack Lemmon, for all the points you've given us. God bless you. (Applause.)

Maria Tallchief was born in the Osage Indian Territory of Oklahoma. She was invited to dance at the Hollywood Bowl at the age of 15, and joined the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo not long after that. Her talent destined her for distinction, and once she met George Balanchine their brilliant collaboration ensured her place in dance history.

At the New York City Ballet, which she helped turn into America's greatest dance company, she thrilled audiences with her performances of "Firebird," and "Swan Lake." She could spin across the stage faster than any other ballerina, but she did it with an ethereal grace that made it look effortless. Critics and fans said it was pointless to watch anyone else when she was on stage. A great cultural ambassador, Maria Tallchief brought American ballet to the world -- even in dancing in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. She put an American stamp on every role she danced. Her art is preserved not only in film, but in the memories of everyone who ever saw her perform. And her influence lives on now in the young dancers she teaches. Thank you, Maria Tallchief, for the radiance of your art. (Applause.)

Edward Albee, Benny Carter, Johnny Cash, Jack Lemmon, Maria Tallchief: five artists who have devoted their entire lives to enriching our lives.

It is nearly impossible to measure the extent of their influence or the pleasure they have brought to so many millions of people. We honor them tonight for their passion, for their spirits, for the American ideal they bring to life in their work. Thank you, thank you, and God bless you all. (Applause.)

END 6:04 P.M. EST