Pool Report — WH Concert Honoring Stevie Wonder
Real Clear Politics
A long read, but mostly worth it. Highlights at the top, followed by a more detailed tick-tock and transcript.
Love was in the air at the White House tonight, as the President and First Lady hosted a concert to honor Stevie Wonder, a man whose music they said brought them together.
FLOTUS opened the event, and explained that she grew up listening to Stevie Wonder’s music with her grandfather. Years later, she said she “discovered what Stevie meant when he sang about love. Barack and I chose the song, ‘You and I’ as our wedding song.” A chorus of “awws” from the crowd. FLOTUS continued, that Wonder’s music has been connecting with fellow artists and fans for 40 years, adding that he recently performed with the Jonas Brothers, “thrilling a new generation of young girls, including our own.”
The pool left the room as a series of artists (list below) played various hits from Wonder’s collection. We returned to the room in time for POTUS to present the Gershwin award. He called Stevie Wonder’s music “the soundtrack of my youth,” saying he found in it “peace and inspiration, especially in difficult times.” He then mirrored his wife’s comments, saying: “I think it’s fair to say that had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan, Michelle might not have dated me. We might not have married. The fact that we agreed on Stevie was part of the essence of our courtship.”
The award was presented, and after a long ovation, Wonder spoke. “President and Mrs. Obama, I’m so excited to know that I was a part of” – he said, pausing for some laughter from the audience. “I needn’t say more.” POTUS, standing to Wonder’s left, sported a broad smile, and then looked down to his wife in the front row.
Wonder thanked his friends and family, and said he accepted the award for his mother. If she were here, Wonder said, “She’d say, ‘Let me give him a peach cobbler.'” Wonder then spoke of his excitement over the president who honored him tonight, saying that through him “America has a chance to again live up to the greatness that it deserves to be seen and known as.”
He closed by saying that he looked forward to the president being able to unite the world, “so that in my lifetime I can write some more songs about love, about unity, and real songs of passion.” And then he added: “You know, maybe I’ll be a part of creating some more of those babies.” The audience roared with laughter and applause.
Pool exited shortly after, but as we were leaving we could hear Wonder saying that he had thought about inviting POTUS to sing “Michelle My Belle” with him. Sadly, he did not. Instead, Wonder struck up “Signed Sealed Delivered,” a staple of the campaign trail.
The event was to award the 2nd annual Gershwin Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Library of Congress. The entire event will be broadcast tomorrow night on PBS as part of its “In Performance at the White House” series, according to a White House release.
In addition to some famous faces from the DC social scene, guests included (per Katie McCormick Lelyveld) People from the Berklee School of Music, Jeffrey Kimpton from Interlochen in Michigan, the president of Juilliard, the head of the Grammy’s foundation, a number of creative arts and music conservatory teachers and students, and folks from music programs via the DC public schools, including the woman who runs Duke Ellington in NW.
KML also explained that the event was an extension of the continuing plan by the Obamas to open the White House to the greater community, and bring different groups together.
Spotted in the crowd when the pool first entered the East Room: Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Donna Brazille, Valerie Jarett, David Axelrod. Other faces in the crowd spotted as the night wore on: Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Attorney General Eric Holder.
THE TICK TOCK:
Pool gathered just after 7 pm to be escorted up to the East Room. En route, we passed the Diplomatic Reception room, where I spotted Will.i.am and other guests.
At 7:10 pm, we arrived in the East Room, which had been transformed, lighting and all, into a concert venue. A stage had been set up against the wall in between the paintings of Mary and George Washington, facing out in the direction of Cross Hall. There were three rows of chairs in the center, with another small group of five rows angling out on the left and right side of the stage.
According to a program waiting on the chairs for guests, the program was to include the following performances: Kathleen Battle, Tony Bennett, Wayne Brady, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Diana Krall, Mary Mary, Martina McBride, Paul Simon, Esperanza Spalding, and Will.i.am. A supplementary card informed that Battle and Edmonds would not be participating, but that India Arie had been added.
At 7:24, the vice president and Dr. Biden were introduced (VPOTUS’ forehead by now showing no signs of the ashes he had sported during the day) At 7:29, the president and first lady were introduced. POTUS was wearing the same suit he had worn to work during the day; FLOTUS was wearing a very nice green dress (I apologize to those who would like greater detail about the ensemble, but that’s about the extent of my fashion reporting).
FLOTUS then introduced the program:
“Good evening everyone, and welcome to PBS’ “In Performance At The White House.’ Tonight it is a huge thrill for me as we honor a man whose music and lyrics I fell in love with when I was a little girl. The first album I ever bought was Steve Wonder’s ‘Talking Book.’ I’d go to my grandfather’s, because he was a real music junkie. He’d blast music throughout the house. And that’s where he and I would sit and listen to Stevie’s music together. Songs about life, love, romance, heartache, despair. He would let me listen to these songs over and over and over and over again.
“And then there was the album cover, a first that was in Braille. Years later, I discovered what Stevie meant when he sang about love. Barack and I chose the song, ‘You and I’ as our wedding song. For nearly 40 years, Stevie’s music and powerful lyrics have inspired his fellow artists and connected with generations of fans. And he’s still connecting, even today. He recently performed with the Jonas Brothers, thrilling a new generation of young girls, including our own.
“So it is with tremendous pride and delight that I now introduce one of the world’s greatest artists, and one of my favorite people in the whole wide world, Stevie Wonder – in performance at the White House.”
Almost immediately, your pool was ushered out of the East Room via the Green Room, which as it should happen was actually serving as the green room for the artists waiting to perform. We could hear “Sir Duke” being covered as we made our way back to the briefing room. Once in the briefing room, your pool was able to watch some of the show on monitors behind the podium. Cameras occasionally cut to the first couple, who seemed to be genuinely enjoying the performances, FLOTUS occasionally even singing along.
The pool held there until 8:19, when we returned to the East Room for the presentation of the award. POTUS took the stage, and started by joking that FLOTUS asked why they always had to have the podium on stage.
“I would have been satisfied with any of these microphones,” he said, looking around the stage. “But we have protocol enforcers in the White House.”
He then began his remarks, saying he wanted to first thank “the most accomplished cover band.”
POTUS: “Stevie has always drawn on the incredible range of traditions in his music. From them he’s created a sound that at once uniquely American, uniquely his own, and yet somehow universal. Indeed, this could be called the American tradition – artists demonstrating the courage and talent to find new harmonies in the rich and dissonant sounds of the American experience.”
“Tonight’s prize is also personal for me. As Stevie knows, I’m a huge fan. And he has been a great supporter. When I was first discovering music, just like Michelle, it was Stevie’s albums that I found and his songs became the soundtrack of my youth. Through them I found peace and inspiration, especially in difficult times. And I think it’s fair to say that had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan, Michelle might not have dated me. We might not have married. The fact that we agreed on Stevie was part of the essence of our courtship.
“And I’m not alone. Millions of people around the world have found similar comfort and joy in Stevie’s music, and his unique capacity to find hope in struggle, and humanity in our common hardships. This gift that music affords us, transporting us from the here and now, relieving us of our burdens, even if it’s just for the length of a song. And this gift given to us by artists like Stevie is something we can all share.
“So, it is my extraordinary privilege to present the Lbirary of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular song to an artist who has stirred our hearts and our souls for a generation, whose music knows no boundaries, an inspiration to us all. Please give it up for Mr. Stevie Wonder.”
POTUS then gave a big bear hug to Stevie Wonder, patting him on the back and then clasping his hands. The two then held up the prize – which I have to admit I could not see from my vantage point behind the standing crowd, being slightly vertically challenged.
An extended standing ovation followed. Then Mr. Wonder then delivered remarks:
“Wow! I want to first of all thank God for this moment because only through him could all of this happen. President and Mrs. Obama, I’m so excited to know that I was a part of – [LAUGHTER] — I needn’t say more.” [APPLAUSE]
POTUS smiles widely, and looks down at his wife.
Wonder: “There are so many people that I want to thank. So many people I am thinking about. I want to thank all of you, my family, my loved ones and friends, all of whom made it possible for me to stand here this day, this time. I accept this in memory of my mother. I know that Lula Mae is smiling right now. Mr. President, I know that if she were here, she’d say, ‘Let me give him a peach cobbler.’ She would say peach cobbler.
“But what’s really exciting for me today is that we truly have lived to see a time where America has a chance to again live up to the greatness that it deserves to be seen and known as, through the love and the caring and the commitment of a president, as in our president, Barack Obama. [APPLAUSE] It’s exciting ’cause I know my children will be able to say, ‘I was born when there was the first African American president. Yeah, I can do that too!’ But not only can they do that, but all children of all various ethnicities understand that they can speak in truth. They can talk about loving and caring about this country. They can talk about being a united people of the United States of America. They can live that dream that Dr. King talked about so long ago. And if those in this country and throughout the world – you can put down your spirits of hate and open up your hearts to receive God’s ever commitment of love, then we can be a united people of the world. If we can think that big, and feel that strong, then I believe, as is said to me by my God, impossible is unacceptable. We don’t know the miracles that will be bestown on us because of that.
“So I’m looking forward to you doing that, so that in my lifetime I can write some more songs about love, about unity, and real songs of passion. You know, maybe I’ll be a part of creating some more of those babies. [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]
“I want you to know that I love you til my last breath. Thank you.”
Pool was then immediately taken out of the East Room again at 8:30. As we left, Wonder joked that he had thought of inviting POTUS on stage to sing “Michelle My Belle” to FLOTUS, but did not.
After we returned to the briefing room, your pool again watched the rest of the show on monitors. It was from there that I watched as POTUS and FLOTUS then took the stage one last time, at 8:50.
POTUS said: “I hope, and Michelle hopes that all of you have had an extraordinary evening celebrating a true American master. Please give it up one more time for Mr. Stevie Wonder.”
After another round of applause, the first couple left the room.
At 8:54, a full lid was called.