The essence of the Kennedy Center Honors can be seen in a photograph taken Nov. 13, 1961, long before the Kennedy Center existed or the first awards were given, 17 years later. The picture shows Spanish cellist Pablo Casals at the White House, where he performed for President John F. Kennedy and a glittering crowd of political and cultural leaders. For years, Casals had boycotted performing in the United States in protest of the nation’s support for the brutal right-wing Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, but he was heartened by Kennedy’s election campaign and finally accepted an invitation to the White House. It would become a defining moment in the administration’s embrace of both the arts and the image of elegant cosmopolitanism.
The photo shows the great cellist standing slightly apart from a crowd of women in long dresses and men in white tie. Among them are the president and the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, and the power of the image is all in their body language. The first lady stands with her hands clasped in front of her chest looking rapturously at Casals, while the president adopts a stance no less deferential. Politics is paying homage to the arts, which has been the goal of the Kennedy Center Honors since they began in 1978.
Even before President Trump equivocated and dithered about a violent rally of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites in Charlottesville, it wasn’t clear whether he would take part in the event, attended annually by the president (with only three exceptions) since Jimmy Carter inaugurated the tradition. The president’s role during the televised event is entirely symbolic. He sits with the honorees and watches the performances. Although the president traditionally hosts the honorees at the White House beforehand, the actual event requires something from the commander in chief for which Trump is not temperamentally suited: quiet deference.
Now the president and first lady have said that they won’t participate, only the third time a president has bowed out and the first time the absence is due to purely political calculations. After three of the honorees — the dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, television producer Norman Lear and singer-songwriter Lionel Richie — said they wouldn’t attend or might not participate in the White House reception, it was clear that Trump’s presence would be a distraction from artists who had publicly deplored his statements, which were widely seen as tolerant of racists and bigoted supporters.
“In light of the socially divisive and morally caustic narrative that our current leadership is choosing to engage in, and in keeping with the principles that I and so many others have fought for, I will be declining the invitation to attend the reception at the White House,” de Lavallade said in a statement.
Trump’s cancellation happened almost simultaneously with the resignation of the entire President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, an advisory group. Despite annual debates about government funding for organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, it seems the rift between the administration and the larger arts world is now total. Arts leaders clearly think they have nothing to lose from a president who has threatened not only to eliminate all government support for the arts and humanities, but who has also embodied a leadership style antithetical to values that have become sacred within most contemporary arts communities, including tolerance, service and egalitarianism.
The big question looming over the awards now is whether future presidents will attend. Can a tradition be reassembled after it has been broken? The arts occupy an already marginal position in American society, and the custom of presidential participation in the Honors has always been an anomaly, given the priorities of American cultural life and a decades-long rhetorical assault against the arts by conservative politicians. If a future president needs an excuse to forego the evening, he or she now has one ready. If Trump lasts in office, and skips the Honors the next four years, the tradition may be effectively scuttled.
The decision by de Lavallade and Lear is a pure form of the more calculating ones made by the business executives who fled from presidential advisory boards over the past week and a half. The artists had only their own reputation and conscience to consult, not the winds of consumer opinion and the finer details of brand identity. Socializing with Trump was intolerable for these artists, but the end of the tradition was not their doing — it was Trump’s.
The drama around the Honors this year may seem like a sideshow to a presidency that appears increasingly erratic and even dangerous, given the warnings of such longtime public servants as former national intelligence director James R. Clapper Jr., who has questioned the president’s fitness for office and raised the terrifying specter of nuclear arms in the hands of an unstable leader. But the collateral damage to long-standing traditions from this current political moment is being felt across the American political and cultural landscape. From his first days in office, when Trump used an appearance at the CIA’s memorial wall to tout his inauguration-day crowds, traditions rooted in the dignity and decorum of the presidency have been falling by the wayside. Trump has even mocked the notion of what it means to be “presidential,” using the term ironically when it is clear he is chafing at the obligation to behave himself.
How many of the manners and mores of American political life can be reestablished after Trump leaves or is forced from office is one of the great unknowns of his presidency. He forged a new path to power, based on divisive and racist rhetoric, and others may well follow that path, or blaze even more noxious ones. In office, he has feuded with his own party, skipped the traditional Ramadan dinner, launched into a political tirade during a traditionally nonpolitical address to the Boy Scouts jamboree and skipped a visit to Warsaw’s Monument to the Ghetto Heroes while visiting Poland, a standard photo opportunity for visiting U.S. political luminaries.
With each rupture, the next one is easier, which is why Clapper’s anxieties are so disquieting. By making himself so toxic that his presence would have politicized the Kennedy Center Honors, Trump has unwittingly manufactured the perfect symbol of his leadership. The image of the U.S. president sitting in the same box with the nation’s most respected artists is an image of listening. The president is silent, away from his bully pulpit, and not the cynosure of attention. He takes in the evening’s performances and speeches, and gives none of his own. He is engaged and open, or, at the very least, must give the impression of being engaged and open.
There are, of course, constitutional limits to a president’s power, but the Honors capture something different, a fundamental humility with which we hope our leaders are at least occasionally in contact. Everything about Trump suggests he has no access to that place, no knowledge of the awe most people feel when the arts suggest something limitless about the existence in which even the greatest of us play only an infinitesimal part. Nor is he reputed to have much patience for such things as self-discipline and constructive criticism, the bedrock upon which great artistic careers are built.
It will take an exceptional commitment to the arts if the nation’s 46th president reinaugurates the Honors after Trump. It won’t simply be a matter of setting aside a December evening each year of his or her term. The next president must demonstrate that there is a civic purpose and democratic value to the decorum of the traditional presidency, rituals that sustain social bonds and dramatize the presidency as service to the nation, not a perk of electoral victory. The Honors was one of those rituals, and resuscitating them will require a president who can demonstrate to Americans not just that the arts are essential, but how desperately we need their civilizing power.