Kennedy Centre Honours cannot escape turmoil of Trump's presidency

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump boarding Air Force One on July 25, 2017.
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump boarding Air Force One on July 25, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (WP) - For 40 years, the Kennedy Centre Honours - one of Washington's premier social events and the most lucrative fundraiser 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 ever refused the invitation that is annually extended to the 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 to celebrate them, President Donald Trump pulled the plug on Saturday (Aug 19) on his role in the festivities.

This meant that, for the first time since the Honours were established in 1978, a president or a first lady will not be throwing the coveted pre-gala party at the White House for the honourees and will not attend the show - this year to be held on Dec 3.

Although Kennedy Centre officials say the other elements of the weekend-long Honours celebration will go on as planned - including the glittering State Department dinner on the night of Dec 2, presumably still to be hosted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson - the toxins in the political bloodstream have now infected a beloved national tradition.

Viewers across the country are accustomed, on the evening the gala is televised, to cameras panning the presidential box for shots of the proud honourees seated with the president and first lady.

The Honours may be governed and selected by a non-profit institution but they 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.


The implications, though, of the presidential pullout remain more than atmospheric.

The financial success of the Honours' gala weekend is critical to the health of the Kennedy Centre - and this could now be under threat.