WASHINGTON President Barack Obama and stars from the stage and screen honored talk show host Oprah Winfrey, singer Paul McCartney and other artists on Sunday for lifetimes of work in music, theater and television.
Country singer and songwriter Merle Haggard, Broadway composer Jerry Herman, and dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones filled out the list of the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors, an annual celebration of the arts in Washington.
"Although the honorees on this stage each possess a staggering amount of talent, the truth is, they aren't being recognized tonight simply because of their careers as great lyricists or songwriters or dancers or entertainers," Obama said at White House reception before the ceremony.
"Instead, they're being honored for their unique ability to bring us closer together and to capture something larger about who we are -- not just as Americans, but as human beings."
Hollywood stars and other performers feted the five honorees, throwing in some humor along with words of praise.
"No one deserves this award more than Oprah Winfrey, but no one needs it less," comedian Chris Rock said to laughter from the audience.
He also poked fun at Winfrey's role in campaigning for Obama when he was a presidential candidate.
"He didn't get her a job, she got him a job," he said.
'THRILL OF A LIFETIME'
Obama quipped that McCartney had become "something of a regular here in the White House" and declared it the "thrill of a lifetime" that he sang Beatles song "Michelle" to first lady Michelle Obama earlier this year.
Obama said McCartney joked afterward that he was worried the performance would make him the first man to get punched while receiving the award.
"I will say he was a little emotive," Obama said. "You have nothing to worry about. I just recovered from my last tussle on the basketball court," Obama added, to laughs from the audience, referring to stitches he received in his lip after a recent accident playing basketball.
At the Kennedy Center, a fine arts venue dedicated to the memory of slain former President John F. Kennedy, Broadway grand dames Angela Lansbury, Carol Channing and Chita Rivera performed songs from Herman's lively musicals and country music singers Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow took to the stage to play Haggard's melodies.
Actress Claire Danes and playwright Edward Albee celebrated Jones' work.
The evening capped a two-day celebration of the five honorees. On Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted a separate celebration and had a few jokes of her own about the WikiLeaks scandal that has distracted her diplomatic corps.
Clinton, who is doing damage control after the WikiLeaks website released reams of private State Department diplomatic cables, joked that she was going to record her marvel at the "full breadth and depth of American artistry" represented by the artists.
"I am writing a cable about it, which I'm sure you'll find soon on your closest website," she said to laughter.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)