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President Obama Talks David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, Natalia Makarova, Led Zeppelin & Buddy Guy

But I’ve enjoyed my time in the Ed Sullivan Theater. And earlier this year, Dave celebrated his 30th anniversary in late night television -- the only person to reach that milestone besides Johnny Carson. Now, Dave will be the first to tell you that he’s no Carson, that all his years on television have only made him appreciate even more how unique Johnny was. But that’s a good thing, because if he were more like Johnny, he'd be less like Dave.

After all, it was Dave who got his start as an Indianapolis weatherman, once reporting that the city was being pelted by hail “the size of canned hams.” (Laughter.) It's one of the highlights of his career. (Laughter.) It was Dave who strapped a camera to a monkey -- (laughter) -- worked a Taco Bell drive-thru, told Lady Gaga that when he was her age, he had a paper route. (Laughter.) It was Dave who came back on the air less than a week after 9/11 to show the world that New York was still standing. (Applause.)

So tonight we honor David Letterman, who has always offered us an authentic piece of himself -- sometimes cranky, often self-deprecating, always funny. And those of you who have been on his show know he is also a true gentleman. So thank you, Dave. (Applause.)

When Natalia Makarova defected from the Soviet Union in 1970, she made headlines around the globe. But back home, her name was excised from textbooks, her photos expunged from the walls of her school. And for the next 18 years, her countrymen were forced to rely on underground channels to follow the rise of one of the most accomplished ballerinas in the world.

But no one can erase what takes hold of the heart. And in 1989, when the Iron Curtain opened, the Russian people welcomed her back with open arms. Over 2,000 people packed the Kirov Theater where she had trained as a young girl -- another 20 people crammed in with the orchestra -- all to watch a dancer who never thought she’d be back. It was a fitting end to a career that began when 13-year-old Natalia, completely double-jointed and possessed of an incredible gift for musicality and movement, told her parents she did not want to be an engineer, thank you, she wanted to dance.

After hanging up her shoes, Natalia moved to Broadway, where she won a Tony Award. And she 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. (Laughter.) And thank you for sharing your talents with all of us. Congratulations. (Applause.)

I worked with the speechwriters -- there is no smooth transition from ballet to Led Zeppelin. (Laughter.) We were trying to work the "Stairway To Heaven" metaphor and it didn't work. (Laughter.)

So when Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham burst onto the musical scene in the late 1960s, the world never saw it coming. There was this singer with a mane like a lion and a voice like a banshee, a guitar prodigy who left people’s jaws on the floor, a versatile bassist who was equally at home on the keyboards, a drummer who played like his life depended on it.

And when the Brits initially kept their distance, Led Zeppelin grabbed America from the opening chord. We were ready for what Jimmy called songs with “a lot of light and shade.” 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. (Laughter.)

But even now, 32 years after John Bonham’s passing -- and we all I think appreciate the fact -- the Zeppelin legacy lives on. The last time the band performed together in 2007 -- perhaps the last time ever, but we don't know -- more than 20 million fans from around the world applied for tickets. And what they saw was vintage Zeppelin. No frills, no theatrics, just a few guys who can still make the ladies weak at the knees, huddled together, following the music. (Laughter.)

Of course, these guys also redefined the rock and roll lifestyle. We do not have video of this. (Laughter.) But there was some hotel rooms trashed and mayhem all around. So it's fitting that we’re doing this in a room with windows that are about three inches thick -- (laughter) -- and Secret Service all around. (Laughter.) So, guys, just settle down. (Laughter.) These paintings are valuable. (Laughter.) They look very calm now though, don't they? (Laughter.)

It is a tribute to you guys. And tonight we honor Led Zeppelin for making us all feel young, and for showing us that some guys who are not completely youthful can still rock.

So we've got Buddy Guy. We've got Dustin Hoffman. We've got David Letterman, Natalia Makarova, Led Zeppelin -- (applause) -- each of us can remember a moment when the people on this stage touched our lives. Maybe they didn’t lead us to become performers ourselves. But maybe they inspired us to see things in a new way, to hear things differently, to discover something within us or to appreciate how much beauty there is in the world.

It’s that unique power that makes the arts so important. We may not always think about the importance of music or dance or laughter to the life of this nation, but who would want to imagine America without it? That’s why we celebrate artists like the ones here tonight. And that’s why, in this season of joy and thanksgiving, they have earned our deepest appreciation.

So congratulations again to tonight’s honorees. Thank you all very much. And I look forward to a spectacular evening. Thank you. (Applause.)


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