WASHINGTON — For singer-songwriter James Taylor, Wednesday at the White House was "pretty much the peak" of a long and successful career, right down to the moment that the Marine band played "Your Smiling Face."
The Boston-born, Carolina-raised crooner whose hits date back four decades was among the 20 performers and intellectuals awarded the National Medal of Arts or the National Humanities Medal at the White House.
The icing on the cake for the 62-year-old baby-boom icon? He'd helped elect the president who slipped the heavy prize over his head on a royal-purple rope.
Taylor shared the honors with the likes of musicians Quincy Jones and Sonny Rollins, and authors Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth.
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"One of the great joys of being president," Obama told the gathering, "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." That last tease prompted laughter.
When he learned of the award, Taylor said, he scrapped a concert date in Des Moines, Iowa, and flew straight to Washington from a show in Omaha, Neb.
"I've had two hours' sleep and I'm dazed, but it's great," he said.
Taylor, Jones and Rollins shared the arts designation with a distinguished crowd: critic Robert Brustein, pianist Van Cliburn, sculptor Mark di Suvero, poet Donald Hall, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, author Harper Lee and actress Meryl Streep. Lee and Streep weren't present, however.
Oates and Roth shared the humanities honors with authors and scholars Daniel Aaron, Bernard Bailyn, Jacques Barzun, Wendell E. Berry, Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, Stanley Nider Katz, Arnold Rampersad and Gordon Wood.
Taylor backed Obama's candidacy in 2008, performing five free concerts in North Carolina to whip up support for his campaign.
Obama won North Carolina — by one-third of one percent. It was so close that "those of us who worked on the campaign down there got a real sense that we'd made a difference," Taylor said Wednesday, as he chatted with a handful of reporters and photographers at the White House after picking up his medal.
He gave a thumbs-up when asked about Obama's prospects for re-election next year, though he thinks the president has been "too modest" in touting his successes.
"I'm hoping that the American public understands who we've got here . . . what a remarkable leader and chance it is for the country. It just makes me feel wonderful to see them in this White House."
Then, Taylor stopped himself, saying, "I don't mean to get too political."
Taylor also took part in an unofficial tradition of visiting dignitaries, descending a staircase to the room below the White House press briefing room to scrawl a note on one of the walls. His reads, "Got my medal, feel so proud, James 'fire+rain' Taylor."
Roth also backed Obama in 2008, saying in an interview with the German outlet Spiegel that Obama's election would be important to American blacks, and "it would say something about this country, and it would be a marvelous thing."
(James Rosen contributed to this article.)
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