After performing from a repertoire of the most famous songs from his songbook at a private concert at the White House Friday night, Elton John was called to the podium where he surprised President Joe Biden, accompanied by First Lady Jill Biden, the famous Briton. Singer-songwriter with an award.
The President presented John with the National Humanities Medal for his advocacy work in recognition of LGBT rights and his tireless activism against the global HIV/AIDS crisis through his contributions to music and the arts.
The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened a nation’s understanding of the humanities and expanded the participation of its citizens in history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities.
The stunned John was moved to tears. After the president read the quote by a military aide and hung the medal around the singer’s neck, Biden told the assembled audience, “I think we surprised him” and they cheered and applauded.
The quote from the medal states that John was honored “for moving our spirits with his powerful voice and one of the defining songwriters of all time. An enduring icon and an advocate of sheer courage, he found a purpose to defy tradition, break down stigma and promote the simple truth – that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Visibly moved, the famous musician and instrumentalist said, “I have never said to the First Lady, but I am amazed, humbled and honored with such a wonderful award from the United States of America. Second to none, but in the fight against AIDS and HIV, it’s even bigger and I can’t thank you enough… I’m really touching about this – thank you.”
The private gathering, held under a glass and aluminum domed “tent” on the South Lawn of the White House, was attended by 2,000 guests including former First Lady Laura Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, his boss. Chastain, as well as teachers, nurses, LGBT advocates, and military families, whom the White House has dubbed “the makers of everyday history.”
During an earlier hiatus in his performance, the singer addressed Bush, praising her husband, former President George W. Bush, for the ongoing work on the Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which President Bush began while in office, and credits her with saving millions of lives. across the African continent and helping to change the course of the global HIV/AIDS crisis.
“I want to say to the first lady, President Bush has rushed the whole thing with the PEPFAR bill. It was the most incredible thing,” he told Laura Bush.
Full text of the President and First Lady’s speech:
First Lady: Hello! Good evening. Thank you, Athena. Leaders like you, those who help the next generation live authentically and find their voice, are the ones who make me so optimistic about our future.
And thanks to Paul Butcheri and A&E for helping us organize this event together.
Isn’t that incredible?
First Lady Laura Bush is with us tonight. And, Laura, it is a great honor to welcome you and your family to the White House.
Finally, I would like to say what a joy it is to be here with the man who has inspired, supported and loved Sir Elton John for so many years: his wife David.
Few things have the power to bring us together like music. This can force us to move as one on the dance floor, singing with strangers when we hear that familiar tune. It’s the sound of feelings we can’t always define.
When the piano plays, strings swell, drums beat in time with our hearts, we find joy or balm for our sorrows or harmonies that tell us we’re not alone.
And in that spirit, as we celebrate the music of Elton John, we celebrate you too – the history makers every day.
Many of you are my fellow-teachers, like Leah Michael Dillard. (clap.) I love teachers! Therefore, Leah has taught seventh grade English for 20 years. And Leah, your students are better thinkers and more engaged citizens because of you.
We also have first responders and healthcare heroes like – like Dr. Amber Pearson. Amber was the first person in her family to attend university. And it wasn’t easy. She worked multiple jobs, took out a loan, and when she finally reached her dream, gave back to others, as an audiologist for veterans and their families, serving the women and men who serve us so well.
And in this crowd are the leaders of the beautiful, bold, and diverse future we are building together, like Javier Gomez, a student from Miami. When his governor passed a law targeting the LGBTQ community, he didn’t hold back.
Javier, you remind us of the power of one person willing to speak out what is right, and that’s what you’re all about tonight. When we come together, we use our voices, we celebrate that our differences here in America are precious and our similarities are endless.
Elton once said, “Music has therapeutic power. It has the power to take people out of themselves for just a few hours.”
We’re here tonight to lose ourselves again and come together – and maybe even heal – with the power of music.
And now, I can introduce another huge fan, who happens to be the President of the United States and my husband, Joe Biden.
THE PRESIDENT: You should have defended Jill, but you can sit me down. Please, every seat. Please take a seat.
Look, I – as my fellows – many of them senators still here, they came tonight – were always joking with me because – I was quoting Irish poets on the floor of the Senate.
I think I did it because I’m Irish. This is not the reason. I did it because they are the best poets in the world.
One we lost not so long ago, Seamus Heaney once wrote, and quote, “Once in a lifetime, the tidal wave of justice, hope and the rhyme of history rises.”
Throughout this surge—-his incredible career, Sir Elton John has been that tidal wave–the tidal wave to help people get up and make hope and rhyme history. Three hundred million records were sold. 71 billboards, nearly half of which are in the top ten. Six Grammy Awards. Two Oscars. One Tony, among the many and multiple nominations across the board. Four thousand shows around the world. Singer-songwriter of our time forever.
On his recent trip to Washington, Jill and I invited Elton to the White House to thank him on behalf of the American people.
So, like many Americans, our family loves his music. His songs take us – take us back to a time, place and memory. Songs that make every day exceptional, help us connect and live. And songs that reflect the artist’s talent, that sixth sense to imagine what no one else can do, then sing, play and dream until that feeling of freedom is emptied.
As Jill just mentioned, a lot of people have joined us – he released the freedom to be himself, to be treated with the dignity and respect he deserves.
Families and advocates fighting HIV/AIDS – a battle – a battle led by absolute will, the fight for those who have lost lives and the lives we can save.
Leaders advocate the equality of all people, no matter who you are or who you love.
Every day – every day Americans of every generation and from every background know that life can be tough and full of struggle, but it can also be full of joy and purpose.
And tonight we are joined by the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to the United States, Karen Pierce, during a difficult time. Karen, thank you. Thanks for being here, Karen.
Jill and I traveled to London to pay our respects to the Royal Family on the Queen’s death.
Our Hopes Tonight – We hope that Sir Elton John’s music will heal grief as it has in the past.
Throughout his career, Elton has found his voice – not just his, but his voice to help others and help them find theirs.
With his hope, he made a historical rhyme for countless people in our nation. That’s what it’s about tonight.
Elton has often spoken about how American music changed his life and how different genres and sounds affected his music and his imagination. It’s clear that Elton John’s music has changed our lives.
To David and the boys, thank you for sharing your husband and father with us tonight. (Applause) And to Elton, on behalf of the American people, I thank you — and I honestly mean this — thank you for moving the spirit of our nation.