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Secretary Michael R. Pompeo At the Kennedy Center Honors Dinner

SECRETARY POMPEO: Good evening, everyone. Welcome. It’s really a joy to be with you all here tonight, so many amazing patriots, great artists, and welcoming you to this beautiful, beautiful space here at the United States Department of State. It’s always a privilege for me to be in these beautiful, gorgeous rooms privately funded at a level of excellence that I’m always so proud to take my foreign counterparts through when they come to visit the United States.

There’s a lot of reasons we host this event every year.

It doesn’t matter which political party we’re from. Art belongs to no party, no class, no gender, no age. It belongs to each and every one of us. This event’s really important. I regret that I couldn’t make it last year. I was worried in Morocco on Thursday I might not make it this year too. (Laughter.) Actually, I got a note from a couple who says, “You need to get on the plane now.” (Laughter.) It’s important because it celebrates something that we’ve all fought so hard for here in America, our prized value to express our views, our beliefs, our freedoms, our ideas.

It’s a remarkable day here. It’s December 7th, of course the anniversary of the events of Pearl Harbor where 2,300 Americans were killed in 1941. It’s the event that, of course, launched us into World War II, which was a valiant fight for freedom all around the world.

And it’s important, then, that we get to join together, have a great dinner tonight, and a lot of fun tomorrow too to celebrate those freedoms we have and those people that have sacrificed so much so that we could all be here this evening. Tonight, we do so by encouraging our artists and honoring those who have reached the absolute pinnacle in their field. It was great to meet many of you this evening.

The State Department does its part to uphold freedom of expression through the arts in every country where the United States has an embassy, a diplomatic presence, and a consulate. We have visual art, we have live performances, educational collaborations, and much more.

We are so proud to share American art with our international partners and friends. And in fact, this year, the Pompeos’ Christmas card will highlight the arts in our embassies. It’s really – it’s a special card that shows all the great contributions that amazing patriots have gifted to the United States so that we can have American art in our facilities around the world.

When I think about my role as America’s most senior diplomat, it means not just investing in our policies, but also in the things that we care about here and to show American music and American movies, our art, our books, our stage productions. Indeed, my profession and that of my team’s diplomacy benefits from the very art that we celebrate tonight.

Through each of these forms of expression and more, we share with the world just a glimpse, a little piece of what we admire most about our great nation: the freedom to speak, to nurture creativity, the innovation, and the courageous raw talent that we always bring to the world. We tell through this art critical American stories that have transformed societies.

So I thought I’d start tonight with a story. It’s a story about a young girl in Afghanistan named Zari.

Zari lives in a society where many girls never get to go to school. But young Zari is an assertive young lady. She insists on attending class. She even tried out for the soccer team. And like many young women today, she has her hair dyed multiple colors underneath her hijab. (Laughter.)

Zari is, of course, very mature for her age, and often talks about how all young girls should be able to get an education and become anything that they want to be.

And of course, Zari’s also unique because she’s a Muppet. She’s a character on a show called Sesame Garden, which is produced by the Sesame Workshop, the same non-profit that produces Sesame Street that I grew up with, and one of our honorees tonight.

It was the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan that provided the funding for the first seven seasons of that show.

We did it because equal opportunity and respect for the unalienable rights of every person are key to our mission of supporting prosperity, stability, and democracy in Afghanistan, a project that Ambassador Khalilzad is on the ground there working on even as we speak.

Sherrie Westin of the Sesame Workshop put it this way. She said, quote, “We’re showing little boys that it’s okay for girls to go to school.” Indeed, it must be so.

That’s the power of the arts. (Applause.)

All of our other honorees this evening have represented our country well as true cultural ambassadors.

Do you remember? Ninety million records sold worldwide. That was Earth, Wind, and Fire. That’s as close as you’re going to see me coming to sing tonight – (laughter) – in case you were all worried. I know Susan is sitting down here frightened. Their music has been the wellspring of positivity and inspiration during a remarkably tumultuous time in American history.

And they helped show the world that we could, in fact, bridge gaps of race and of class.

It’s one of the reasons that our National Portrait Gallery recently awarded Earth, Wind, and Fire its “Portrait of a Nation” prize, honoring them as change-makers.

Band-leader Maurice White is no longer with us, but I think it’s safe to say that his legacy lives on in the music he helped to create.

Congratulations to Earth, Wind, and Fire. (Applause.)

Then there’s Ms. Sally Field, an ageless actress who has reached multiple generations around the world through an amazing body of TV, screen, and stage work, a list far too long to keep your dinner warm tonight. From TV hits that she was part of – Sybil and ER – to truly timeless films like Norma Rae; my wife’s favorite, Steel Magnolias; and of course, that unique American treasure, Forrest Gump.

Forrest Gump taught the world important lessons about American life and about our fundamental humanity. It helped launch programs serving veterans and their families that are still thriving, even today. I was with some of them in the Middle East not too terribly long ago. In 2012, Ms. Field starred as Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s wonderful movie.

This important film about American values, American history, and an American hero wasn’t just big in our country. It was a mega-success all over the world. It grossed over a hundred million dollars internationally.

And today, Sally uses her voice to advocate for women’s rights and the rights of people who are struggling wherever it is that they are living. And she created a bone health campaign that encourages early detection of bone checkups for women.

And for my part, maybe it’s predictable, but I was a big Smokey and the Bandit fan. (Laughter.)

Thank you, Ms. Field, and congratulations to you. (Applause.)

It won’t surprise you with my time in Kansas that I’m a big fan of Linda Ronstadt as well, an icon of folk and country music. Thirty albums, ten Grammys, a bestselling memoir.

And as a nod to her own ancestry, Ms. Ronstadt released a collection of traditional Mexican songs, which became the best-selling non-English-language album in all of American history.

She’s shared her musical gifts in uniquely impactful ways, including teaching music and dance to the children in Mexico.

Ms. Ronstadt, thank you and congratulations. (Applause.) And I will say my job, as I travel the world – I just want to know when I will be loved. (Laughter.) I just read them. (Laughter.)

Finally tonight, we have the enormous privilege to celebrate Michael Tilson Thomas, the director of the San Francisco Symphony. He has earned 11 Grammys for albums that include music from the classical to the avant-garde.

And speaking of the avant-garde, if you haven’t heard the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra play Enter Sandman with Metallica – (laughter) – yes, that Metallica, there’s a treat in store for you. Susan and I spent the last couple nights listening to those concerts. They’re truly amazing.

He is also a co-founder of the New World Symphony, an academy based in Miami that prepares students from all over the world to be leaders through music.

Since its founding, it’s launched the careers of more than 1,100 amazing artists worldwide, and he’s contributed greatly to the vitality of the global, classical music scene.

Thank you very much and congratulations, Mr. Thomas. (Applause.)

For the honorees tonight, you are now in elite company: Hepburn, Springsteen, Sinatra, Spielberg, just to name a few. It reminds me of my first day when I walked down the hallway – pictures, portraits of all the previous secretaries. I was walking with my son – Madison, Jefferson – and my son said, “Pompeo.” (Laughter.) Yeah, one cannot hope to replicate, but only be inspired by those who have come before us.

I want, too, to thank our co-host for the evening and our Foggy Bottom neighbor, the Kennedy Center

I want to congratulate Deborah and David in particular on the opening of the impressive new extension facility called Reach.

Reach, if you haven’t heard of it, provides incredible opportunities to reflect on the unique power of art.

One of the artists first showcased there goes by the name of George W. Bush. After leaving the presidency, he took up painting and completed 66 portraits of veterans of the War on Terror. Think of the many quiet hours the former commander-in-chief spent in solitude, rendering the faces of these heroes on canvas for all of us to see.

It says a lot to me about the power of art, and also about our country.

The great American playwright Tennessee Williams once wrote of the characteristics that drive every artist, “the obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction.”

And I want to thank our honorees tonight for their interest in human affairs, for their compassion, and for their moral conviction representing our country as well.

Finally, on a personal note, I am married to a thespian, my mother-in-law was a professional singer, and my niece spends every waking moment she can on stage.

I was not particularly artistically gifted, but like so many Americans, I have been surrounded by the arts and the artistic, and it is uplifting and improves my life.

I’m grateful for each of you, and for all of you, and for you all joining Susan and me here tonight.

May God bless you and congratulations, and may God bless our great country. Thank you. (Applause.)

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