One of the enduring images of the annual Kennedy Center Honors is of teary-eyed A-list artists with their rainbow-ribboned medals sitting next to a smiling president and first lady in the White House box.
But that money shot won’t be happening this year, when LL Cool J, Carmen de Lavallade, Gloria Estefan, Norman Lear and Lionel Richie are celebrated for their contributions to the performing arts. President Trump and first lady Melania Trump bowed out of the 2017 event after Lear, de Lavallade and Richie said they wouldn’t attend the White House reception before the Kennedy Center festivities Dec. 3. (The show is to be broadcast Dec. 26 on CBS.)
Trump’s decision probably will not put a damper on the star-studded event, a highlight of Washington’s social calendar that brings celebrities, political leaders and corporate titans together to raise money for the Kennedy Center’s programs. Trump’s call for eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts did not endear him to the cultural world, and his response to the Charlottesville demonstrations led many corporate leaders to resign from his business councils. So there’s a whiff of the inevitable to this outcome, as well as a tacit acknowledgment of how hard it is to keep politics out of any Washington event.
“It’s a blessing in disguise, and not very well disguised,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor emeritus in public affairs and philanthropy at Indiana University. “With an unpopular president, this is not going to be a big deal.”
Presidents have no role in the selection of the honorees, who are chosen by a Kennedy Center committee from nominations by the public and past winners. But the president and first lady’s presence helps to sell out the fundraiser. Since the first event in 1978, every president has attended, although Jimmy Carter skipped it in 1979 because of the hostage crisis, while George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton missed out because of trips to Europe in 1989 and 1994. Obama arrived late in 2015.
Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter said there are no signs that the event will suffer from Trump’s decision to stay away.
“Our patrons, our friends, our donors love the weekend. They love coming here, and they plan their weekend around it,” she said. “We have not had any feedback that says, ‘I’m not coming.’ ”
That’s good news for the arts center’s finances. The Kennedy Center brings in $6.5 million to $7 million from the performance and post-show gala, with ticket prices of $500 to $6,000. But that’s a fraction of the donations it generates. Patrons must give at least $10,000 to be eligible to buy tickets to the glamorous affair.
Trump’s decision, although made three months before the show, came after the presale of tickets was underway. Earlier this month, CBS and Boeing were named exclusive sponsor and underwriter for the ceremony, respectively, and Boeing’s chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, is chairing the post-show gala. And corporate donors seeking to network will still have the opportunity to mingle with artists, celebrities and politicians.
“There will probably be a fair number of senior staff there,” Lenkowsky said. “Corporate people have learned that the boss is not the guy you want; you want to be closer to the actual decision-makers.”
This year’s impasse exposes political tensions that have bubbled under the surface for decades. Pianist Leon Fleisher, a 2007 honoree, wrote about his discomfort at attending the White House reception hosted by George W. Bush because he disagreed with Bush’s policies on the war in Iraq and the torture of prisoners. Honors producer George Stevens Jr. told him that earlier honorees — including Isaac Stern and Arthur Miller in 1984 — had similar misgivings. But all ended up following tradition.
“I’m somewhat grateful that [Trump] has bowed out,” Fleisher said in a phone interview, adding that it would have been easier to decline had Trump been hosting. “From his point of view, it’s the avoidance of a boring evening.”
Political humor that had been avoided in previous celebrations crept into last year’s performance, held weeks after the election. Comedian Stephen Colbert slipped several digs at Trump into an opening monologue that included lavish praise for the Obamas. At the State Department dinner the night before the performance, actors Sean Penn and Kevin Spacey weren’t shy in expressing their fears about the incoming administration. And on her personal Facebook page on Jan. 20, the day Trump was sworn in, Rutter posted, “A very sad and scary day in America.” (Her public page has since been made private.)
“We have worked to be entertaining but not political. At the State Department, people make their own comments that are not for public consumption,” said Rutter, who added that she thought her Facebook post was private.
“I have the utmost respect for the presidency and the nonpartisan tradition of the Kennedy Center, and over the course of this year I have personally welcomed the president, the vice president and many senior members of his administration to the Kennedy Center, and that will continue.”
It is unclear how this year’s break in tradition will affect the ongoing relationship among the Trump White House, the Kennedy Center and the wider arts community. Some Kennedy Center insiders say the first year of an administration sets the tone for the rest of the term, but for Rutter, it’s too early to tell.
“I am making no assumptions about the future,” she said.