US President Barack Obama greets Led Zeppelin band members Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones after an event in the East Room of the White House December 2, 2012 in Washington, DC.
AFP PHOTO/Brendan Smialowski

By Tangi Quemener

Covering the White House doesn’t exactly leave a reporter with much free time, but I was more than happy to break into my days off to cover last weekend’s reception hosted by President Barack Obama to fete this year’s Kennedy Center honorees.

We’d known since September who would receive the prestigious awards from Washington’s sprawling cultural complex. The prizes would go to legendary Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy, actor Dustin Hoffman, talk show host David Letterman and Russian-born classical dancer Natalia Makarova, who fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

But among the names in the announcement, two words jumped out at me like amped-up rock stars leaping off a stage: Led Zeppelin. 

I was too young in the 1970s to appreciate guitarist Jimmy Page’s fret-shredding feats, the primal howls of singer Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham’s violent virtuosity and John Paul Jones’s psychedelic keyboard trips.

But I’ve been catching up ever since. The British group’s albums are on a more-or-less constant loop in my house and, like millions of other fans, I search with increasing fatalism for clues suggesting Zeppelin might properly get back together more than three decades after they disbanded in the aftermath of Bonham’s death. 

File shot: A signed Led Zeppelin album cover in 2005.
AFP/Mario Tama/Getty Images

4.30 pm. The “pool” -- a small group of media including AFP -- are taken to the White House’s ceremonial centre, the East Room. We are positioned at the back of the chamber, already decorated with Christmas trees and garlands.

The guests begin arriving -- the men in tuxedos, the women in fancy, flowing gowns. 

Robert De Niro, Aretha Franklin, Morgan Freeman are there alongside House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Lenny Kravitz, whose early inspiration drew heavily on Led Zeppelin, and guitarist Jeff Beck, formerly of The Yardbirds, arrive and sit close to us.

5.30 pm. Plant, Page and Jones, all them in tuxedos, take the podium. Each is wearing the distinctive rainbow-themed Kennedy Center Honors ribbon around his neck.

Then Barack and Michelle Obama are given a triumphant welcome as they arrive for one of their first appearances together since the president’s November 6 re-election. 

The 2012 Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center December 2, 2012 in Washington, DC.
AFP PHOTO/Brendan Smialowski

Like every year, Obama stands behind a lectern emblazoned with the presidential seal. He praises the “extraordinary” talents of the laureates, starting with Buddy Guy. 

He tells the story of how Guy, who grew up in a poor sharecropper family in Louisiana and made his first guitar out of wires from a window screen, took part in a February concert at the White House and performed “Sweet Home Chicago”.

The president then recalls that when Dustin Hoffman auditioned for a part in "The Graduate", a crew member handed him a subway token on his way out, saying, "Here, kid, you're gonna need this."

But Hoffman, Obama points out, ended up winning the role and "it launched one of the greatest movie careers of his generation, of any generation."

Kennedy Center Honoree comedian and late night talk show host David Letterman arrives in the East Room of the White House December 2, 2012 in Washington, DC.
AFP PHOTO/Brendan Smialowski

After talking about Makarova, Obama jokes it is hard to transition in his speech from ballet to Led Zeppelin. He gives a quick synopsis of the band’s musical -- and rockstar -- legacy. 

“There was some hotel rooms trashed and mayhem all around.  So it's fitting that we’re doing this in a room with windows that are about three inches thick -- and Secret Service all around,” he says. “So, guys, just settle down. These paintings are valuable.”

Plant, 64, who has filled out a little since his days as sex-symbol showman, laughs heartily alongside Page, 68, his white hair pulled into a ponytail. 

Led Zeppelin band members Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones.
AFP PHOTO/Brendan Smialowski

Obama, who was only seven when Led Zeppelin was formed,  says “a generation of young people survived teenage angst with a pair of headphones and a Zeppelin album, and a generation of parents wondered what all that noise was about.”

Which is Obama, I wonder, former rebel teen or worried parent? 

One clue: during his tribute, he didn’t really seem to be a true rock fan, and he has given pledges of admiration to non-rock artists and since 2009 invited many to the White House, including Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan.

A handshake later, Obama and his guests leave the stage and the audience scatters throughout the reception rooms. The honorees are due to attend a gala at the Kennedy Center, covered by my colleague Fabienne Faur. 

One small disappointment: The Marine Corps orchestra, who provided the musical background, did not try to play the Zeppelin classic "Dazed and Confused".


Tangi Quemener is AFP White House correspondent and has written about his experiences in a published book, "Dans les pas d'Obama".