A sitting president has not attended the celebration of the arts since 2016 because Donald and Melania Trump stayed away from the ceremonies held while they lived in the White House. In 2017, the Trumps announced in August that they wouldn’t attend after several honorees, including television producer Norman Lear, were critical of him.
Sunday’s event is the first fully in-person Honors of Biden’s tenure. Vice President Harris and husband Douglas Emhoff will join the Bidens in the Opera House box alongside the honorees. The 44th Honors will be broadcast Dec. 22 on CBS.
Jill Biden made her first appearance as first lady at the Kennedy Center for its 50th anniversary concert on Sept. 14, when she delivered remarks from the stage. Sunday will be Joe Biden’s first appearance as president, although he attended the 2009 Honors as Vice President, bringing his daughter Ashley.
The Bidens will host a White House reception before the performance on Sunday, another tradition that the Trumps did not uphold. In May, when the Kennedy Center produced a hybrid Honors that had been postponed from December 2020 because of covid, the Bidens welcomed the honorees to the White House but did not attend either of the socially distanced in-person events that were part of the week-long taping. Biden used the opportunity to reflect on the importance and power of the arts.
“Jill and I had the pleasure of hosting the 43rd class of the Kennedy Center honorees at the White House,” Biden said in that June 4 video. “We did so as ordinary fans of their extraordinary work that touches the soul of our human experience. And we did so as your president and first lady, recognizing how art touches the soul of America.”
“In this year of profound loss and pain, repair and renewal, the artist’s vision is as important as ever in the search for greater meaning in our lives. We discovered and rediscovered the power of art in every form,” he said.
Since the first Honors was celebrated in 1978, the presidents have watched the star-studded performances alongside the honorees. Several presidents over the years have missed the event because of scheduling: The Iran hostage crisis kept President Jimmy Carter away in 1979, and Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were absent in 1989 and 1994 because they were traveling in Europe. President Barack Obama arrived late in 2015 after giving a nationally televised address. In each of those cases, the first lady served as the president’s surrogate.