For 40 years, the Kennedy Center Honors — one of Washington’s premier social events, and the most lucrative fundraiser on the arts institution’s calendar — has managed to sidestep partisan politics. Honorees have been known to grouse about the policies of the president whose hand they have to shake. But no luminary in music, film, theater, dance or television has ever refused the invitation that is annually extended to the new inductees to meet the leader of the free world, in the people’s house.
With the honorees in open revolt, and three of them — television impresario Norman Lear, dancer Carmen de Lavallade and recording artist Lionel Richie — declaring they would boycott or were considering not attending a White House reception to celebrate them, President Trump pulled the plug Saturday on his role in the festivities. This meant that, for the first time since the Honors were established in 1978, a president or a first lady will not be throwing the coveted pre-gala party at the White House for the honorees, and will not attend the show — this year to be held Dec. 3 in the Opera House and later broadcast nationally on CBS.
Although Kennedy Center officials say the other elements of the weekend-long Honors celebration will go on as planned — including the glittering State Department dinner on the night of Saturday, Dec. 2, presumably still to be hosted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — the toxins in the political bloodstream have now infected a beloved national tradition. Viewers across the country are accustomed, on the evening the gala is televised, to cameras panning the Opera House’s presidential box for shots of the proud honorees seated with the president and first lady. (Three times, presidents have had to bow out because of other responsibilities: Jimmy Carter during the 1979 hostage crisis and George Bush and Bill Clinton, who were in Europe in 1989 and 1994, but the first ladies attended as usual. Barack Obama arrived late to the 2015 gala after delivering a national address on the San Bernardino, Calif., attack.)
You can love or even love to hate the entirely subjective nature of the Honors and the show’s highly sentimental tributes. Still, the occasion remains an important one for many Americans. The Honors may be governed and selected by a nonprofit institution occupying a national memorial, but they are what passes in this country for knighthoods for the performing arts: the highest-profile awards bestowed for lifetime achievement in popular and high culture. Now that the culture wars have intervened, stoked by a president who has alienated many artists throughout the nation, one wonders whether the political taint will be so easily removed.
It’s no small irony that, with the racially inflammatory language Trump used all through his campaign — and most recently, in his response to the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville that left a counter-demonstrator dead — this year’s honorees are the most ethnically diverse in history. Along with Lear, who is Jewish, the recipients include Cuban-born pop singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan and three African Americans: de Lavallade, Richie and rapper LL Cool J.
The absence of the presidential couple in an Opera House box filled with artists of color is bound to reinforce the negative optics of an administration that has seemed intent on projecting its hostility toward diversity. That may be why Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter and Chairman David M. Rubenstein went so far in their statement Saturday as to declare their relief at the president’s withdrawal. “We are grateful for this gesture,” they said. Gratitude is not exactly the feeling one expects officials to express at such a moment, but perhaps the clarity of Trump’s decision eliminated for them the possible will-he-or-won’t-he media coverage and other potential problems in planning for the weekend.
Rutter, in an interview, said the center received word late Friday from the office of first lady Melania Trump — with whom the institution had been working on Honors planning — that the cancellation might occur. But she took pains to point out that there has been no permanent break with the White House, and the hope is that this is an isolated circumstance.
“The important thing to remember is we are the nation’s cultural center,” she said. “I am making sure that all of the nation is welcome in this building.”
The implications, though, of the presidential pullout remain more than atmospheric. The financial success of the Honors’ gala weekend is critical to the health of the Kennedy Center, according to some former insiders with deep knowledge of the institution’s workings who aren’t authorized to speak for the center. Donations to the center throughout the year, especially from corporations, are tied pivotally to the types of access the Honors weekend provides.
While CBS picks up the tab for the show, the Kennedy Center counts on clearing between $7 million to $8 million from ticket sales for the evening alone, these insiders say. And how generous the donors are throughout the year, they add, affects, for instance, how choice their seats are for the performance.
The other events on the Honors schedule include the sit-down State Department dinner on Saturday. It’s the fanciest event of the weekend, with invitations to about 200 people, at which the citations are typically read by a celebrity on the magnitude of a Meryl Streep or Renée Fleming, and the Honors medals are presented to each honoree.
There are some smaller social events, but the other major one has been the White House party for about 300 guests, late on the Sunday afternoon just before the show. The gathering has long had a huge allure, particularly for corporate donors who wait all year for the chance to mingle with the honorees and the president. The party, at which a dessert buffet is usually served, features the president giving brief remarks about each recipient and — crucially for many guests — individual photos of themselves with the president, posed in front of the Christmas tree.
Of course, what’s not clear in this most bizarre of political years is whether corporate types would even want a photograph with this president, especially after the events of the past week, when business executives began resigning from Trump’s Manufacturing Council and his Strategy and Policy Forum, leading to the president to disband both.
In any event, the turmoil is unlike anything the Honors has ever experienced. On occasion, an honoree with strong political views has chafed at rubbing elbows with a certain president, as Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford did in the years they were honored during the administration of George W. Bush. Still, they participated. Some others have come close to a boycott, as pianist Leon Fleisher revealed, in a 2008 op-ed he wrote for The Washington Post about his misgivings, a couple of months after receiving his award during the last years of George W. Bush’s administration in December 2007.
“For several weeks before the honors,” Fleisher wrote, “I wrestled with this dilemma, deciding in the end that I would not attend the reception at the White House. That decision was met with deep, if understandable, disapproval by the powers that be. I was informed that I was hardly the first honoree to express such reserve; cited to me, among others, were Arthur Miller and Isaac Stern during the Reagan years and several during the present administration. I was asked to attend all of the scheduled events and to follow the well-established protocol of silence.”
The times, they are a changin’. The protocols have collapsed, it seems, and the silence has ended.