President Trump skipped the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017, publicly stating that he wished to avoid marring the celebration with a “political distraction.” A year later, his absence at the event – held earlier this month, and now being televised on CBS – merely reinforces the disconnect between the commander in chief and key ceremonial aspects of America’s cultural life.
The Kennedy Center tribute joins other touchstones – like NBA championship teams visiting the White House – that have fallen by the wayside since Trump’s inauguration. And while such matters aren’t necessarily important in the bigger scheme of things, it does feel as if there’s a donut hole at the center of all this pomp and circumstance.
Perhaps more than most, the Kennedy Center has always been a kick in that respect, seeing Washington luminaries get in touch with their inner fan, dancing and singing along (often poorly, but so what?) during rousing tributes to stars in various artistic fields.
This year’s music-centric honorees offer a fair amount of opportunity for such good vibrations, with the showiest segments devoted to Cher, Reba McEntire and the creators of “Hamilton,” joined by jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter and composer Philip Glass.
Even with Trump’s absence, both sides of the political aisle were well represented, just based on who the cameras find in the crowd. Attendees included soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Jeff Flake, and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
Members of Trump’s cabinet, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, were also on hand, with a conspicuous shot of the latter during the “Hamilton” tribute, which – given Alexander Hamilton’s contributions to monetary policy – felt like somebody’s idea of an inside joke.
Longtime viewers of the Kennedy Center Honors have no doubt enjoyed seeing presidents of either party enjoying the experience. That has produced some indelible moments, such as President Obama being swept away (along with a wildly appreciative audience) by Aretha Franklin’s 2015 tribute to Carole King, belting out a soaring rendition of her song “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
The new presidential void can be lamented without assigning blame. Several 2017 honorees said they were contemplating a boycott of the ceremony as a political statement. Some of this year’s honorees, particularly Cher, have also been outspoken critics of the president.
Nevertheless, Trump’s absence – this time citing scheduling conflicts – makes him the first president to miss the event twice in its 41-year history. And that feels like a shame.
The ideal underlying the Kennedy Center Honors stems from the unifying power of the arts, and hinges on lauding the careers, craft and discipline of those on display – even in the face of political differences and disagreements.
“Today, as always, art knows no national boundaries,” Gloria Estefan, the emcee of this year’s event, said quoting the late President Kennedy during her introduction.
In remarks that weren’t included in the TV special, Estefan also paid tribute to the late George H.W. Bush – who had died just a few days earlier – saying that he “graciously attended this event many times during his administration, laughing, applauding, singing along, and even shedding a tear from right up there in that presidential box.”
The current reality seems both more complicated than that, and less hopeful. Because while these cultural icons and their work have brought people together, partisan division has erected boundaries that make it uncomfortable for the president and many of those who entertain us – on stage, screen or in an arena – to even sit in the same room.
“The 41st Annual Kennedy Center Honors” will air Dec. 26 at 8 p.m. on CBS.