President Obama drew appreciative laughs from his guests at the White House on Sunday evening as he gently roasted the 2012 Kennedy Center Honorees during a glittering formal reception at 5:30 PM in the East Room, ahead of the annual tribute Gala. Blues legend Buddy Guy, Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman, comic David Letterman, the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin--John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant--and ballet superstar Natalia Makarova are "extraordinary people who have no business being on the same stage together," the President declared. (Above, entering the reception with the First Lady)
Wearing their medals on rainbow ribbons, the honorees sat on a stage behind the tuxedo-clad President as he spoke, flanked by lit Christmas trees and swags of holiday greens. First Lady Michelle Obama, in a bright gold sleeveless gown with a bejewelled neckline, sat in the front row beside Caroline Kennedy. The awards are given annually by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to honor individuals who have made lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts. (Above: The honorees on the East Room stage, listening to the President)
The guest list was loaded with more famous artists, including Morgan Freeman, who lent his talents to the President's re-election effort; Alec Baldwin; Robert De Niro; Ray Romano, who was spotted joking by the presidential podium; Tina Fey, Lenny Kravitz; and Doris Kearns Goodwin.
As he paid tribute to each honoree, the President joked as he told their stories. He pointed to Letterman’s unlikely career beginnings as an Indianapolis weatherman who once reported "that the city was being pelted by hail 'the size of canned hams,'" and turned the tables on the comic, who welcomed both Obamas to his show during the 2012 reelection race. (Above, Letterman and Hoffman)
"It’s unclear how Dave feels about this hour," the President said to laughter. "It’s different when you’re not the one with the mic, isn’t it, Dave? You're looking a little stressed, aren't you?"
The President ticked off Hoffman's other most memorable roles, praising in Midnight Cowboy, All the President's Men and Tootsie.
The President thanked Led Zeppelin for behaving themselves at the White House, since they have a reputation for "hotel rooms trashed and mayhem all around."
"It’s fitting that we’re doing this in a room with windows that are about three inches thick and Secret Service all around," President Obama quipped. (Above, with the band)
But then he noted that "it’s been said that a generation of young people survived teenage angst with a pair of headphones and a Zeppelin album and a generation of parents wondered what all that noise was about."
The President was more serious as he described Guy's career, telling the tale of "the humble country boy who used to milk cows on a farm outside Baton Rouge" who is now "one of the last guardians of the great American blues." The 76-year-old legend is the son of a sharecropper, and made his first guitar out of window screen wires, the President said.
The President declared Makarova modest beyond all measure, after describing her incredible ballet career that followed her defection from the Soviet Union, and a later stint on Broadway, where she earned a Tony award.
Makarova, he said "remains as humble as ever -- once saying, “I’m never proud of what I’ve done. Sometimes, I’m not ashamed.”
"So thank you, Natalia, for the understatement of the century," the President said.
At the Kennedy Center...
After the reception, the President and Mrs. Obama traveled to the Kennedy Center to attend tribute performances for the honorees, who were seated in the President's box during the Gala.
During the tribute, Freeman hailed Guy, and rock stars including Foo Fighters performed. De Niro and Naomi Watts heralded Hoffman, Judith Jamison sang the praises of Makarova, Jack Black lauded Led Zeppelin, and Baldwin, Fey, Romano, and Jimmy Kimmel saluted and skewered Letterman. The program will be broadcast on PBS stations on December 26th.
The President and Mrs. Obama returned to the White House shortly before 11:00 PM.
Click here for the transcript of the President's remarks at the reception.
*Pool photos by AP & Getty