In 1969, Leonard Garment, a former clarinetist with Woody Herman, and then an attorney serving as a key aide to President Nixon, teamed with the Voice of America's Willis Conover and several others to arrange for a special White House celebration of Ellington's seventieth birthday. Ellington was asked to submit a list of fifty people he waned invited. The joint Ellington-White House guest list included, besides the expected politicians, musicians Count Basie, Billy Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Mahalia Jackson, Richard Rodgers, and Harold Arlen; Ellington friends Arthur Logan and Stanley Dance, critic Leonard Feather, producer George Wein, director Otto Preminger, the Smithsonian Institution's Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, the Voice of America's Willis Conover, and Ebony publisher John Johnson. Ellington's sister, Ruth, and his son, Mercer, and his wife and three children also attended.One can only hope to have such wit.
In a remark that became often quoted, Ellington said, "There is no place I would rather be tonight except in my mother's arms." Nixon winning declared, "In the royalty of American music, no man swings more or stands higher than the Duke." Ellington kissed Nixon twice on each cheek. "Four kisses?" asked the president. "Why four?" "One for each cheek," Ellington replied. Nixon was momentarily dumbfounded. The climax of the evening came when Nixon presented Ellington with the Presidential Medal of Freedom - the nation's highest civilian honor. The medal was the supreme recognition the US government could offer Ellington, and it must have gone a long way to compensate for the disappointment of the Pulitzer rejection.
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