September 30, 1997

My husband is a pretty happy guy. But he doesn't get much happier than he was on Monday, when we walked from the White House to a tent on the South Lawn. Just about anyone would have been in a good mood, because inside the tent were musicians like Tito Puente, Betty Carter, Don Henley and Doc Watson. There were actors like Angela Lansbury and Jason Robards. And there were writers like Studs Terkel and Maxine Hong Kingston. Gathered on stage were more than a dozen other Americans who have made indispensable contributions to our vibrant and diverse culture. The occasion was the President's presentation of the 1997 National Medals for the Arts and the Humanities. The 21 recipients are the largest number of people ever to receive the awards.

As I travel the country, I am privileged to see how the arts and humanities contribute to the strength of our families and communities. Our artists and thinkers challenge us to see who we are and inspire us to live up to our highest ideals. They remind us that fulfilling the promise of our American motto, E Pluribus Unum, is our greatest strength -- for what we call American culture is many different cultures coming together, like rivers running into the sea. The free flow of ideas and the diversity of expression in the United States today are sure signs of our democracy's health.

October is Arts and Humanities Month, so the scope of American creativity has been on my mind more than usual.

Last week, the Heritage Awards honored 11 uniquely American folk artists. Before I arrived in the East Room for the ceremony, I knew something out of the ordinary was going on. The doors in the White House were shaking. The chandeliers were quaking. And all because of the full-throttle, Gospel trombone music of one of the honorees -- Ed Babb and his band, the McCullough Sons of Thunder from the United House of Prayer in Harlem.

Though not every Heritage Award recipient reached quite the volume of Babb and his band, all were unforgettable. There were bluegrass singers from Tennessee and a woodcarver from New Mexico. There were people keeping alive traditions passed on to them by relatives or neighbors -- from blacksmithing to quilting to Chinese opera. Their individual work couldn't have been more different, but what they taught us was remarkably the same: that our traditional arts bind us not only to our past but also to each other.

The power of the arts to connect us to our heritage is also apparent in a new exhibition of works by Native American sculptors in the White House Sculpture Garden. Each piece, in its own way, represents the seamless fusion between ancient roots and modern spirit. It's an extraordinary collection, the sixth to showcase American sculpture since we inaugurated the garden in 1994 -- and it's there for anyone who visits the White House to see.

Our cultural vitality depends on support from all sectors of society. Museums are crucial. After the Arts and Humanities awards, I hosted a ceremony for this year's recipients of the National Award for Museum Service. In honoring the work being done by museums in Baltimore, Houston and Indianapolis, it seemed to me that not only were these institutions stewards of our artistic and cultural heritage, they were also instrumental in building up our communities -- giving people a place to come together and teaching our young people how wide their horizons can be.

The private sector also plays a critical role in our efforts to preserve and nurture American creativity. So, after the museum awards, it seemed fitting to continue my "arts day" by meeting with business and foundation leaders. What was on their minds?

Most notably, arts education. We shared our concerns about the cuts in school arts programs, which are depriving students of the chance to play an instrument, sing in a choir or act in a play when we know that exposing children to the arts can improve academic performance and help them grow into productive adults. This mirrored the findings of a report issued by the President's Committee for the Arts and Humanities last year: Cultural programs can steer young people away from violence and drugs, and toward fulfilling futures.

That's one more reason why government has an important role to play in supporting the arts and humanities. I know I've written this before, but some things are worth repeating: A modest investment in our National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities yields incredible returns by sparking local, state and private contributions. I am proud that Bill has fought so hard to protect the federal role. I am proud, too, that he is making the preservation of American culture the centerpiece of his White House Millennium Program.

Looking at the faces of the men and women on stage to receive the arts and humanities medals, I thought of the children they had taught, the lives they had inspired, the minds they had opened. Their presence seemed the strongest possible reminder that the arts are essential. From a band that plays in town on a summer afternoon to a dance class for children, the arts and humanities make a difference in our lives. We all have a responsibility to support them. And government has a responsibility to lead.