WASHINGTON – It’s not often presidents appear star-struck, but on Thursday, President Obama sounded giddy surrounded by luminaries including author Stephen King and chef Alice Waters as he honored them at the White House for their contributions to American culture.
“I’m grateful that I’ve gotten promises for at least a couple of signed books,” the president said to laughter in the East Room of the White House. “I think Alice said she’s going to cook me something; nothing unethical.”
King, Waters and Oscar-winning actress Sally Field were among 18 people and three organizations that Obama recognized for excellence in the arts and humanities as he awarded the 2014 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal.
“They all have one thing in common,” said Obama. “They do what they do because of some urgent inner force.”
The National Medal of Arts is considered the government’s highest award given to artists and arts patrons.
The National Humanities Medal honors individuals or groups whose work have deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities, which, along with the National Endowment for the Arts, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
“We celebrate here today our fellow citizens, from all walks of life, who share their gifts with all of us, who make our lives and our world more beautiful, and richer, and fuller, and I think most importantly, help us understand each other a little bit better,” Obama said. “They help us connect.”
Since the 1960s, Field has appeared in popular TV shows and movies that were box office hits, including “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Forrest Gump.”
Her numerous awards have included best actress Academy Awards for her roles in “Norma Rae” in 1979 and “Places in the Heart” in 1984.
King, a Maine native, has been called the “master of horror” for such thrillers as “Carrie,” “The Shining” and “Misery.” Hundreds of millions of copies of the author’s books have been sold and translated in dozens of languages. His work has also been adapted to the screen, which has helped make his name nearly synonymous with the horror genre.
“I’m amazed and grateful” for the award, King recently wrote on his Facebook page.
A long proponent of the organic food movement, Waters opened her organic restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., in 1971. Her Edible Schoolyard Project provides an educational curriculum that promotes nutritious eating and works closely with students at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.
“I am so honored to accept the National Humanities Medal,” she wrote on Twitter.
Singling out Texas author Larry McMurtry, the president said, “He wrote about the Texas he knew from his own life, and then the Old West as he heard it through the stories of his grandfather’s — on his grandfather’s porch. And in ‘Lonesome Dove,’ the story of two ex-Texas Rangers in the 19th century, readers found out something essential about their own souls, even if they’d never been out West or been on a ranch.”
McMurtry, of Archer City in North Texas, is known for bestseller “Lonesome Dove” about the settlement of the American West, as well as being a co-writer of the screenplay of the Oscar-winning film, “Brokeback Mountain.”
McMurtry, 79, appeared somewhat frail and wore sneakers with his suit and red tie. Obama placed the large round medal, tied with a red ribbon, around the author’s neck while a military aide read the citation: “Larry McMurtry for his books, essays, and screenplays. Mr. McMurtry’s work evokes the character and drama of the American West with stories that examine quintessentially American lives.”
Another Texan who got a presidential shout-out was landscape architect and historian Everett Fly of San Antonio.
“We celebrate historians like Everett Fly, who studied to become both a building and landscape architect, and who got his start studying forgotten African-American towns and communities,” the president said.
Obama also acknowledged Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a former Kansas City arts executive, and William “Bro” Adams, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, on the 50th anniversary this month of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing a bill creating their agencies.