President Obama awarded Joan Didion, George Lucas, Tony Kushner, and 21 other writers, academics, performers and artists with the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal on Wednesday. While many of the people honored have been celebrated for decades, tiny Joan Didion stole the show. "I’m surprised she hasn’t already gotten this award," Obama said. The photos of the tall president and the diminutive writer were striking. "Didion and Obama together dyinggggggggggggg over here," New York's Michael Connelly tweeted. "Watching the ceremony live, I worried that the medal was going to be too heavy for her," Mark Athitakis tweeted. "She's so frail. I couldn't believe it," the Washingtonian's Sophie Gilbert responded. Gilbert tweeted this photo:
BuzzFeed's Chris Geidner tweeted the hug:
But the ceremony wasn't just about cute photo ops. While many of those who made the list are hardly controversial—we can all agree Lucas has contributed to the arts in a big way, and you can see a "proud George Lucas" in the photo at right—the Obama administration also honored several writers known for works that comment on, and criticize, U.S. foreign and domestic policy. As the Washington Post argues, a President's selections for the medals can be seen as a political statement. The supposed liberalism of some of his nominees, however long ago they demonstrated it, shows the president is taking "a stand in the nation’s continuing culture wars." It comes as Obama has announced a few new policies to appeal to liberals as they criticize his current foreign policy.
Playwright Tony Kushner, who received a National Medal of Arts, might be considered a statement-maker if focus on his earlier plays. His 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes explored AIDS during the Reagan administration. More recently he wrote the screenplays for Munich, and a somewhat well received little biopic called Lincoln. Robert Silvers, the New York Review of Books editor receiving a National Humanities Medal, has been known to run the publication as an showcase for policy criticism. In 1967 the Review sent Mary McCarthy to Vietnam and the piece she wrote on her return was "intensely critical of the American presence in Vietnam."
The early works of Joan Didion questioned the motives of U.S. foreign policy in Central America with equal vigor. (The famously tiny Didion with Obama, above and at left.) Her book Salvador chronicled her two weeks in El Salvador in June of 1982, during the Salvadoran Civil War. In the book, she noted the discrepancy between the U.S. goals and what was best for El Salvador:
It was not until late in a lunch with Deane R. Hinton, the United States Ambassador, "that it occurred to me that we were talking exclusively about the appearance of things, about how the situation might be made to look better, about trying to get the Salvadoran Government to 'appear' to do what the American Government needed done in order to make it 'appear' that the American aid was justified."
Thankfully, not every award had possibly political undertones. Author and Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson was awarded, as was actress/playwright/MacArthur fellow Anna Deveare Smith. Herb Alpert's A&M records brought mariachi and Brazillian music to the American masses and Tijuana Brass gave us groovy instrumentals like this:
(Top photo from the White House live stream via Michael Connelly; photo at left via Associated Press.)