Kennedy Center Honors is latest victim of Trump's presidency

This year’s Kennedy Center honourees include (from left) dancer Carmen de Lavallade, singer Gloria Estefan, hip-hop artist LL Cool J, singer Lionel Richie and television writer and producer Norman Lear.
This year’s Kennedy Center honourees include (from left) dancer Carmen de Lavallade, singer Gloria Estefan, hip-hop artist LL Cool J, singer Lionel Richie and television writer and producer Norman Lear. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • For 40 years, The Kennedy Center Honors - one of Washington's premier social events and the most lucrative fund-raiser on the arts institution's calendar - has managed to sidestep politics.

Honourees have been known to grouse about the policies of the president whose hand they have to shake. But no luminary in music, film, theatre, dance or television has refused the invitation that is annually extended to new inductees.

Until now. With the honourees in open revolt, and three of them - television impresario Norman Lear, dancer Carmen de Lavallade and singer Lionel Richie - declaring they would boycott or were considering not attending a White House reception, United States President Donald Trump pulled the plug last Saturday on his role in the festivities.

This meant that, for the first time since the Honors were established in 1978, a president or first lady will not be throwing the coveted pre-gala party at the White House and will not attend the show on Dec 3 in the Opera House and broadcast on CBS later in the month.

Although Kennedy Center officials said other elements of the weekend-long Honors celebration will go on as planned - including a State Department dinner on Dec 2 - the toxins in the political bloodstream have now infected a beloved national tradition.

Viewers are accustomed, on the evening the gala is televised, to cameras panning the Opera House's presidential box for shots of the honourees seated with the president and first lady.

You can love or even love to hate the subjective nature of the Honors and the show's sentimental tributes. Still, the occasion remains important for many Americans.

The Honors are what passes in the US for knighthoods for the performing arts.

Now that the culture wars have intervened, stoked by a president who has managed to alienate many artists throughout the nation, one wonders whether the political taint will be so easily removed.

It is no small irony that, with the racially inflammatory language Mr Trump used throughout his campaign - and most recently, in his response to the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville - this year's honourees are the most ethnically diverse in history.

The implications, though, of the presidential pullout are no small matter. The financial success of the Honors' gala weekend is critical to the health of The Kennedy Center.

Donations throughout the year, especially from corporations, are tied to the various types of access the Honors weekend provides.

While CBS picks up the tab for the show, The Kennedy Center counts on clearing between US$7 million (S$9.5 million) and US$8 million from ticket sales for the evening alone, insiders said.

And how generous the donors are throughout the year, they added, affects, for instance, how choice their seats are for the performance.

There are some smaller social events, but another major one has been the White House party for about 300 guests, late on the Sunday afternoon just before the show.

The gathering has long been a huge come-on, particularly for corporate donors who wait all year for the chance to mingle with the honourees and the president.

Of course, what is not clear in this most bizarre of political years is whether corporate types would even want a photograph with this president, especially after the events of the past week, when business executives began resigning from Mr Trump's Manufacturing Council and his Strategic and Policy Forum, leading to the president to disband both.

In any event, the turmoil is unlike anything the Honors has ever experienced. On occasion, an honouree with strong political views has chafed at rubbing elbows with a certain president, as singer Barbra Streisand and actor Robert Redford did in the years they were honoured during the administration of Mr George W. Bush.

Still, they participated.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2017, with the headline 'Kennedy Center Honors is latest victim of Trump's presidency'. Print Edition | Subscribe