Washington is a town of traditions. Every year, certain things happen like clockwork. It’s a seasonal mix of weather, politics, sports, celebrations and events. One notable event is the Kennedy Center Honors, in which performing arts legends receive what amounts to a coveted lifetime achievement award.
This involves dignitaries, superstars and the peers of those being celebrated, resplendent in their medals and accompanied by friends and family. It has almost always been the case that the president and the first lady serve as host and hostess for the proceedings.
That was not the case for Sunday night’s otherwise sparkling evening, the 40th Kennedy Center Honors. Soon after the nominees were announced, President Donald Trump informed the Kennedy Center that neither he nor the first lady would be in attendance out of respect to the recipients, that the presidential presence would not prove a political distraction.
That distraction — the possibility of a boycott by at least two of the honorees — never materialized on presentation night, though there were enough distractions emanating from the White House. On hand were Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Chief Justice John Roberts, Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein and Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter.
All of the recipients showed up, providing a portrait of diversity, of change and variety and more than a little of what America is all about.
Often slow to change with the zeitgeist in the past, the Kennedy Center has put a little zip in its cognizance of pop culture. This year’s cohort was a veritable mash-up of the contemporaneous and the traditional, echoing sometimes loudly in our divided culture
today. The list included LL Cool J, the multi-talented rap and hip hop pioneer; Cuban American sensation Gloria Estefan (feted by Rita Moreno); super-crooner Lionel Ritchie, whose ballads still have the ability to haunt young lovers; Norman Lear, television’s prescient comedic producer, who gave us “All in the Family”; and Carmen de Lavallade, a dance originalist.
The absence of the president and the first lady caused quite a stir back when it was announced in August. After all, the event and the building itself are a tribute not only to President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, but a celebration of the arts and their importance to the spirit of the nation. The absence of the Trumps seemed like a rebuff of America’s culture and its diversity, which — in the person of this year’s honorees — is alive and kicking.