WASHINGTON -- It was another crescendo in the life of pianist Van Cliburn: entering the ornate East Room of the White House on Wednesday with the best of American arts and letters and receiving another accolade from another president -- the 2010 National Medal of Arts.
Cliburn, who lives in Westover Hills and first wowed the world more than 50 years ago, was one of 20 leading figures in the arts and humanities to receive the nation's highest cultural award from President Barack Obama.
"One of the great joys of being president is getting a chance to pay tribute to the artists and authors, the poets and performers who have touched our hearts and opened our minds -- or, in the case of Quincy Jones and James Taylor, set the mood," Obama said to laughter.
"And I speak personally here because there are people here whose books or poetry or works of history shaped me. ... The fact is that works of art, literature, works of history -- they speak to our condition and they affirm our desire for something more and something better."
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As the ramrod-straight Cliburn approached the podium, a smiling Obama greeted the taller Texan and exchanged a few words with him.
The president placed the medal around Cliburn's neck, and a military aide read the citation: "The 2010 National Medal of Arts to Van Cliburn for his contributions as one of the greatest pianists in the history of music and as a persuasive ambassador for American culture.
"Since his historic 1958 victory at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Mr. Cliburn has reached across political frontiers with the universal message of beautiful music."
"It was such a lovely service," Cliburn told the Star-Telegram. "They were so nice, very sweet, very kind. I was so thrilled."
Cliburn knows the Obamas from a performance he gave with the Chicago Symphony in July 2005, when Barack Obama was a senator.
Asked how many presidents he has performed for, he said, "Every one. Every one since Eisenhower."
First lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Jill Biden and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., were in the audience of about 200 people celebrating the honorees.
Producer and musician Quincy Jones, a fellow Kennedy Center honoree with Cliburn in 2001, was also awarded a medal Wednesday, and Cliburn said the two reminisced about that gala.
But for Cliburn, who also received the Medal of Freedom at the White House from President George W. Bush in 2003, the recognition Wednesday had a special cachet.
Asked how he would rank the award among those he's received, Cliburn said, "Extremely high, when your government, your president extends you an accolade for what you've been able to do."
Cliburn's victory at the Tchaikovsky Competition at the height of the Cold War galvanized the United States. Since then, he has used his talent and success to foster international understanding with the Russian government and people.
Maria Recio is the Star-Telegram's Washington bureau chief. 202-383-6103