President Obama Says ‘a Lifetime of Greatness’ for Kennedy Center Honorees

President Obama thanked each of the five 2011 Kennedy Center Honorees for their contributions to the arts and congratulated them on a “lifetime of greatness” in a ceremony tonight in the East Room of the White House.

“Of course, this doesn’t mean that they’re over the hill, it just means they’ve come a long way,” the president said. “At first glance, the men and women on this stage could not be more different — they come from different generations, different walks of life … and yet, they belong here together because each of tonight’s honorees felt the need to express themselves and share that expression with the world.”

Broadway star Barbara Cook, singer/songwriter Neil Diamond, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, jazz musician Sonny Rollins, and actress Meryl Streep are being honored tonight.

“Neil Diamond’s career began like so many others — trying to impress a girl,” Obama said. “Now, Neil is the rare musician whose music can be heard everywhere from kids movies to Red Sox games.”

Of Rollins, the president got a laugh describing the saxophone player’s hijinks as a teenager.

“When Sonny Rollins was growing up, his friends would sneak into clubs by drawing mustaches on their faces with eyebrow pencils,” Obama said with a chuckle. “Did that work?”

Obama noted that at age 15 Meryl Streep earned the role of Marian the Librarian in her high school’s production of “The Music Man,” the role fellow honoree Barbara Cook originated and for which she won a Tony Award.

“There’s a theme here,” Obama said.

And about White House frequenter Yo-Yo Ma, Obama joked that he was there so often, he needs his own room.

“The Red Room, The Blue Room, and the Yo-Yo Ma room,” Obama said.

Noteworthy guests for the president’s remarks included ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, Robert DeNiro, Sara Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, John Lithgow, John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, Smokey Robinson, Florence Henderson, violinist Itzhak Perlman, Rep Nancy Pelosi, Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, Sen. Kent Conrad, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Julie Chen and Les Moonves.

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