“Getting this prize would be good enough, but getting it from this president…” he said from the stage of the East Room of the White House.
Obama has been criticized for not being emotive enough or effective enough, but Obama went ahead with an evening that was more than memorable enough.
The occasion was the presentation of the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize, marked by a mix of music legends and teen idols in the intimate setting. That McCartney deserved it was unquestionable. As Obama noted, 200 of his songs have made the charts, and to add up all the weeks would mark a cumulative total of 32 years.
Stevie Wonder, last year’s honoree, sang a rather fitting “We Can Work It Out” — twice. Elvis Costello played “Penny Lane,” accompanied by a trumpet player from the United States Marine Band. And the honoree himself, with the same bass he used when the Beatles debuted on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” played a rendition of “Michelle,” a song that he said he had been “itching to do at the White House.”
After McCartney finished, he quipped that he’d not be the “first guy ever to be punched out by a president.”
While some critics suggested that the event was inappropriate given the environmental disaster in the Gulf, Obama made the crisis a significant part of his remarks, connecting the arts to moments of national trauma.
“Right now our thoughts and our prayers are with our friends in another part of the country that has been so rich in our musical heritage, the people of the Gulf coast who are dealing with something we had not seen before,” he said. “And it is heartbreaking. We reaffirm together our commitment to see to it that their lives and their communities are made whole again. But part of what gets us through tough times is music, the arts, the ability to capture that essential kernel of ourselves, that part of us that sings even when times are hard.”
McCartney, too, noted the “difficult times” Obama is facing. “I just want you to know. You have billions of us who are rooting for you.”
But instead of a somber tone, those who were there described a rare event that brought some of the top musical talent to the White House, what McCartney himself admitted, “I can’t think of anything more special. In fact, I’m thinking of making it a regular thing.”
“It was an incredible evening, with not only McCartney but some of the best performers in the world performing to a small group in the White House who knew how special it was,” said Los Angeles political consultant Noah Mamet.
Others in the crowd included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dick Durbin, and, from California, Steve Westly and Ken Solomon. When he was not on stage, McCartney and his girlfriend, Nancy Shevell, sat in between the Obamas and James Billington, the librarian of Congress, and his wife.
The concert will be aired on PBS’s “In Performance at the White House” on July 28.
Some the other highlights included Jerry Seinfeld riffing on awards in general, Jack White performing “Mother Nature’s Son,” McCartney and Stevie Wonder doing a duet of “Ebony and Ivory,” and Dave Grohl doing a driven, energetic “Band on the Run” — only of its kind in the venue. Under the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, McCartney played the piano as he performed “Let It Be.” (The playlist is below.)
The evening ended with all of the stars gathered on stage for “Hey Jude,” to which the audience launched into a singalong. (And I stand corrected).
As he left, Obama said to some of the guests, “Wasn’t that fun?”
Maybe McCartney really can make it a regular thing.