Before the red-carpet arrivals at the 39th annual Kennedy Center Honors begin, the word travels down the press scrum: Several VIPs in attendance do not wish to discuss politics, thankyouverymuch.
Reporters had lined up to chat with the celebrities attending the glittery awards, including the “talent.” They included presenters, as well as the honorees: actor Al Pacino, rock band the Eagles, gospel singer Mavis Staples, crooner James Taylor and pianist Martha Argerich. Those sticking to the no-politics edict would get longer interviews, the media handlers tell us.
Although apparently not eager to comment on the president-elect or the finer points of the electoral college, those striding down the media gantlet are more than happy to play hype men (and women) for the night’s awardees.
First up is singer Sam Moore, best known for the hit “Soul Man,” twirling the original Wonder Woman and friend-of-the Kennedy Center Lynda Carter in a spontaneous dance. Moore pronounced Carter “puuuuurdy” amid a flurry of air kisses. But his highest praise is for Staples. “She deserves this! She she goes back to our times, to civil rights,” he says. “This honor tells you: You have not been forgotten.”
Darius Rucker, of Hootie of the Blowfish fame, passes by, and confesses that he’s a bundle of nerves, having been called on to perform a song in honor of Taylor. When he got the call from his agent about the gig, “I thought he was messing with me, ” he said. “There are so many artists who have been influenced by James.”
A few minutes later, Don Cheadle gets in a word for fellow actor Pacino: “He’s been an idol of mine forever.”
Still other VIPs were only on the carpet for a photo op — Chris O’Donnell, who acted alongside Pacino in “Scent of a Woman” flashes by — and oh, wait, there’s the Kings of Leon, looking to get to their seats! Baseball legend Cal Ripken (and an unidentified female guest) and actor Kevin Spacey posed for the cameras. And is that Aretha Franklin?
Plácido Domingo drops by for a minute to talk about how “moving” it is to be there, and actress Phylicia Rashad is in rhapsodies about President Obama’s pre-awards ceremony reception speech about the role of the arts.
Okay, so there’s just a little talk of politics. Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter swings by and she can’t help but compliment the president, who hosted the honorees for the final time earlier that evening, along with first lady Michelle Obama, at the White House. Seems that the draw of an audience with the Obamas is a big attraction for musicians and artists. “We had many former honorees who wanted to be here for his final Honors,” she said. “He’s such a charismatic and inspiring figure.”
Still, she says, she’s optimistic about the future of the Honors under a Trump administration. “It’s a wait-and-see … but I can only expect that our next president will love it just as much.”
And finally, the honorees make it down the red carpet — or at least, Staples does. She’s being escorted by a beaming Jeff Tweedy (asked a question, the Wilco frontman demurs and proclaims himself “just a plus-one”).
“I can’t say enough about how honored I am,” she said, tearing up. “Those are happy tears!”
Taylor is just a few beats behind. He’s tall, and chooses his words carefully. “It’s a pinnacle, a high point,” he says of the medal hanging around his neck.
And edicts be damned, one audience member simply can’t avoid talk of politics: that would be House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who gushes about her long history with the night’s honorees, including hearing Staples at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Pelosi has put aside Congress’s end-of-year work just for the night. “It’s always this weekend we’re negotiating the budget,” she says, but she admits that she has found the ultimate way to escape the news cycle: “I left my phone in the car!”