The latest Kennedy Center Honors should be cause for celebration, marking the event’s 40th anniversary, in the year that coincides with John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday.
Yet this annual recognition of the arts — lauding luminaries from various fields, as they rub elbows with the Washington elite — comes with a sizable donut hole this year, as President Trump skipped the event, the first time a sitting president hasn’t attended in more than two decades.
The president’s rationale was that by staying away, he would allow the attendees to celebrate without “political distraction.” But his absence from CBS’ telecast — which taped in early December — is itself something of a distraction, underscoring the toxic nature of the relationship between the current occupant of the White House and the arts community.
Indeed, opening remarks by Caroline Kennedy that would have normally sounded benign felt pointed in the current climate, as she spoke of her father’s commitment to “the rule of law, to religious tolerance and racial justice, to nuclear disarmament and scientific innovation.” She also quoted Kennedy’s observation that the highest duty of the artist is to “remain true to himself, and let the chips fall where they may.”
Those chips, many conservatives would argue, are at the root of the schism, resulting in more political commentary at during award-show acceptance speeches and on red carpets. Liberals, meanwhile, would point toward Trump administration policies that compel them to speak out.
This year’s roster of Kennedy Center honorees also felt like a rebuke to Trump, or at least called attention to some of his more polarizing positions. That included the Spanish spoken during Gloria Estefan’s induction, and recognition of famed “All in the Family” producer Norman Lear, who has championed liberal causes through the organization he created, People for the American Way.
The historically stodgy ceremony also feted its first rapper, LL Cool J, who, among other things, stars in a series on the host network, “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
Although the president was absent, the camera found other D.C. figures in the audience, such as Democratic congressional leaders Steny Hoyer and Nancy Pelosi, as well as CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and his wife, Julie Chen.
The Kennedy Center presentation is always defined by its elaborately produced tributes, as well as the emotion exhibited by the honorees. This year, the latter ranged from dancer/choreographer Carmen de Lavallade being brought to tears to Estefan, Cool J and Lionel Richie all singing along jubilantly during the Richie tribute, as Leona Lewis led the crowd in a rendition of “All Night Long.”
Trump, it’s worth noting, wasn’t the only real-life story that found its way into the event. Referring to Lear’s sitcom “One Day at a Time,” Rita Moreno — who co-stars in the new Netflix version — explained how the original show was ahead of its time, dealing with issues such as sexual harassment.
“And look how far we have come,” she said, to laughter from the audience.
The Kennedy Center Honors has consistently been one of the year’s classiest specials, and this year is no exception. Still, the fact that Trump chose not to attend is another sign of what a struggle it is — amid the current polarized cultural and political moment — to have, and maintain, nice things.
“The Kennedy Center Honors” will air Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. on CBS.