At Kennedy Center Honors, Obama Salutes the Boss

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Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

President Obama shakes hands with singer and songwriter Bruce Springsteen as actor, director, and producer Robert De Niro (left) looks on during a reception for Kennedy Center Honorees in the East Room of the White House.

President Obama and the First Lady often find themselves surrounded by cheering fans, but for a few hours on Sunday night, they were the ones doing the applauding.

"On days like this, remember: I'm the President, but he's the Boss," Obama said in remarks at an East Room ceremony at the White House before the 32nd annual Kennedy Center Honors, where five distinguished artists — comedian Mel Brooks, actor Robert DeNiro, jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, opera singer Grace Bumbry and all-American rocker Bruce Springsteen — received lifetime achievement awards. Springsteen, who endorsed Obama for President in April 2008 prior to joining him on the campaign trail, acknowledged Obama's words with a smile.

On Sunday night, Obama's admiration for Springsteen spread from the upper balcony where he sat with Michelle, radiant in a striking, orchid purple chiffon gown by Peter Soronen and a shock of jewels around her neck. The program, hosted by Caroline Kennedy, presented tributes with video montages, heartfelt remarks and performances by their close friends, who came together onstage to celebrate the honorees' life work.

Robert DeNiro was feted by a handful of actors including Sharon Stone and Ben Stiller in light comic banter, giving a black-box theater feel to the enormous Kennedy Center opera house, followed by Martin Scorsese recounting DeNiro's antics and Meryl Streep speaking about how he inspired her work. For Mel Brooks, a musical medley highlighted scenes from The Producers, Young Frankenstein and more, including a memorable moment with Jack Black leading a rendition of "Men in Tights." A spectacular jam session onstage with Dave Brubeck's four sons closed out a hoppin' "Blue Rondo A La Turk" — which his sons kept a secret from their father until the show, according to his daughter Catherine. Herbie Hancock then took the podium, saying Brubeck was the reason he got into jazz. Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, a friend of Grace Bumbry, passionately belted out an aria from Carmen. And Jon Stewart — who shares New Jersey home-state ties with Springsteen — drew laughter with his dry humor before performances by Sting, Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Melissa Etheridge, among others.

The President — who includes Springsteen's "I'm Fine" and Aretha Franklin's "Think" in his list of top 10 songs — was spotted tapping his feet and bopping his shoulders, with an enormous grin during Franklin's tribute to Bumbry, a "true diva." Michelle threw her head back to laugh, and clapped along, sharing occasional whispers with Springsteen, who was seated beside her. Vice President Joe Biden and his daughter Ashley congratulated the rocker for his award after the tribute; Springsteen then lingered further with DeNiro. (DeNiro's time would later be taken up by the White House's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who just couldn't pull himself away.)

The tribute to Brubeck touched Obama, whose grandfather took him to a Brubeck concert in Honolulu in 1971. "The world [Dave] opened up to a 10-year-old boy was spectacular," he reflected. Of Brooks, the President observed that "behind all the insanity and absurdity, there's been a method to Mel's madness. By illuminating uncomfortable truths — about racism and sexism and anti-Semitism — he's...asking us to see ourselves as we really are, determined that we laugh ourselves sane."

An annual tradition — and the glitziest Washington gets — this year's Honors marks the first presided over by the Obamas as the First Couple. Among the 300 guests in attendance were Mikhail Baryshnikov, Matthew Broderick, Harry Connick, Jr., Jane Krakowski, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Barbara Walters, Nora Ephron, Ed Norton and a number of Congressmen and cabinet members. "I think that this was a beautiful night," said Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

And though it wasn't the President's turn for the limelight, attendees couldn't help but throw some admiring words his way. Hancock called himself "a fan." Baryshnikov said, "Obama is great," and added, "We all have to support him." "Oh, I love him," said Black. "He's very approachable...a very kind and thoughtful man."

In his East Room remarks, the President invoked the role the arts can play in the morale of a nation. "In times of war and sacrifice, the arts remind us to sing and to laugh and to live.... In days of hardship, they renew our hope that brighter days are still ahead," Obama said. "We can overcome whatever comes our way."