WASHINGTON — "I'm the president, but he's The Boss."
With those words, President Barack Obama greeted Bruce Springsteen Sunday night at a White House reception before the iconic rocker was lauded with Kennedy Center Honors along with Robert De Niro, comic genius Mel Brooks, jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck and opera singer Grace Bumbry.
A surprise list of stars performed as part of the nation's highest honors for those who have defined American culture through the arts. It's an awards show that opens with the national anthem and spans jazz, opera, movies and rock 'n roll — part of a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy.
Jon Stewart opened the tribute to Springsteen, recounting his theory on how The Boss came to be.
"I'm not a music critic, nor historian, nor archivist," Stewart said. "But I am from New Jersey. And so I can tell you what I believe. ... I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby."
As the story goes, Stewart said Dylan and Brown abandoned the child on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the child was raised by "a pack of feral vaudevillians. That child is Bruce Springsteen."
Stewart had first lady Michelle Obama doubled over laughing. And The Boss, seated next to her, even cracked a smile.
John Mellencamp sang "Born in the U.S.A.," Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland did "Glory Days" with a country twist, Melissa Ethridge rocked the house with "Born To Run" to a standing ovation and Sting ended the musical tribute with "The Rising" with help from a choir.
About 300 guests, including Jack Black, Edward Norton, Matthew Broderick, Ben Stiller, Martin Scorsese, Philip Seymour Hoffman celebrated the group with a reception in the East Room of the White House before the show.
"These performers are indeed the best," Obama said. "They are also living reminders of a single truth — and I'm going to steal a line from Michelle here — the arts are not somehow apart from our national life, the arts are the heart of our national life."
Springsteen, 60, described the award he received on Saturday night at a State Department dinner as different than other accolades.
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"We worked really hard for our music to be part of American life and our fans' lives," he said. "So it's an acknowledgment that you've kind of threaded your way into the culture in a certain way. It's satisfying."
The show will air nationwide Dec. 29 on CBS.
When Stiller came out to honor De Niro, he got distracted.
Slideshow: The magic of Bruce Springsteen "Oh my God, it's Bruce Springsteen!" he said. "Bruuuuce!"
"And then it's Nobel Peace guy," he said of the president.
The honors were heartfelt for the 66-year-old De Niro, too, though. Meryl Streep opened with a tribute to her friend who she said was exacting with details as an actor, director and producer.
"He did what I and my drama school friends dreamed of — to disappear and morph into a (character)," she said.
Later, Aretha Franklin recounted highlights from Bumbry's career. As a 25-year-old singer, Bumbry broke racial barriers in 1961 when she was invited to perform in a production of Wagner's "Tannhauser." She would be the first black opera singer to appear at Germany's Bayreuth, a shine to the composer's work. Many conservative opera-goers were infuriated. But by the end of the performance, the audience applauded for 30 minutes and drew 42 curtain calls.
Later, Jacqueline Kennedy invited Bumbry to sing at the White House.
Bumbry, 72, said returning to meet Obama for the award was the highest honor she has received.
"It tops all of them," she said. "First of all it's my country, and secondly it's the greatest award we have in this country for the arts."
The gala is Obama's first big event since Micheale and Tareq Salahi slipped past White House security on Nov. 24. The Secret Service runs security for Kennedy Center events the president attends, and everyone who enters must have a ticket that will be checked at the door.
On the red carpet Sunday, Katie Couric said she talked to the Salahis quite a bit at the dinner and joked that everyone is going to be on the lookout for party crashers.
"I think security is a little tighter here," she said.
Carol Burnett led a series of toasts at a more private celebration for the honorees Saturday at a dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Several of the honorees, Clinton said, have been at the forefront of cultural diplomacy. Brubeck, who turned 89 on Sunday, was sent abroad in the Cold War, she said, to serve as an ambassador with his music in countries teetering between democracy and communism.
And Springsteen played a rock concert in East Berlin for 160,000 people just 16 months before the Berlin Wall fell — a concert many Germans remember 20 years later, Clinton said.
"In every time and every culture, artists have lit the way toward progress," she said. "They've helped to provide a common language, a fabric that weaves us together as human beings."
Then there's the more irreverent arts. Even the mention of Brooks' number "Springtime for Hitler" from "The Producers" was enough to draw chuckles.
Brooks, 83, said it's special to receive the honor during the Obama administration. He said he would whisper something in the president's ear about the need for more federal funding for the arts.
"I think when all my awards go to e-Bay, it will be the last," Brooks said of the Kennedy Center medallion before the show. "That's how much I treasure it."
Jack Black saluted Brooks with a rendition of "Men in Tights," and Harry Connick Jr. sang "High Anxiety."
And the show wouldn't have been complete without a riff on the Nazis. Matthew Morrison from TV's "Glee" sang "Springtime for Hitler." Brooks saluted back with a black mustache held over his lip.
Obama joked at the White House that there was a method to Brooks' "madness."
"By illuminating uncomfortable truths — about racism and sexism and anti-Semitism," Obama said, "he's been called 'our jester, asking us to see ourselves as we really are, determined that we laugh ourselves sane.'"
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