WASHINGTON • On the mezzanine of the Kennedy Center Opera House on Sunday night, the seats for a star-studded class of honourees were carefully spaced in an effort to disguise the obvious: The president, a traditional guest of the Kennedy Center Honours, was missing.
It was only the fourth time in 40 years that a sitting United States President skipped the gala, which honours the lifetime achievements of artistic trailblazers - and the first time that the absence was not because of a national crisis or convention.
US President Donald Trump did not attend to avoid "political distraction", according to the White House, but it emboldened honourees to air their angst.
"We happen to have somebody in the White House who doesn't care about the arts and humanities," said Norman Lear, the television producer and progressive activist who received the award.
"I think he was smart to stay away and stay out of town - which is something he does on weekends anyway. Nothing new."
At a State Department dinner for the honourees - Lear, rapper LL Cool J, dancer Carmen de Lavallade and singers Gloria Estefan and Lionel Richie - last Saturday night, Julie Andrews, the actress and master of ceremonies, urged attendees to "step away from divisive discourse" for the weekend.
But some of the evening's political commentary meandered into weighty territory, including immigration policy. In a speech, actress Rita Moreno quoted a segment of the State Department's official mission to foster conditions for the betterment of "people everywhere".
"Some of us have rattled the chains for issues of justice," said Moreno, a Puerto Rican friend of honouree Estefan, who is Cuban-American. "Well, mi amiga, Gloria, it is not lost on me tonight that one immigrant girl will honour another."
In accepting the award, Estefan underscored the fragility of freedom. "People here think you can never lose this, but you can lose this," she said. "We all have to stand up for what this country is, for its values."
Singer Stevie Wonder, ballerina Misty Copeland, comedian Dave Chappelle and actresses Queen Latifah, Eva Longoria and Meryl Streep - a student of de Lavallade's at Yale - were among the dozens who paid tribute to the honourees.