The Kennedy Center Honors, where artists, performers, and the president and First Lady come together to celebrate American art, sip drinks, and have fun, isn’t usually a political affair. But after it became clear that at least three of the five artists selected for recognition said they’d either skip or protest the festivities because they do not support Donald Trump’s administration, the White House released a statement announcing that the president and First Lady would not attend the festivities so as to avoid “political distraction.”
So where does that leave the Kennedy Center Honors, which has been an annual event for nearly four decades? While the schedule will have one less event — the pre-gala reception at the White House will no longer happen without the First Couple — the televised gala will be handled in much the same way, sans a few standard reaction shots of Donald and Melania Trump sitting through the night’s performances. But while other presidents have skipped the event, this is the first time the First Couple has opted not to attend explicitly in response to protest from honorees. How significant is this event and the White House’s response? Here’s the breakdown of what’s going on.
Who’s being honored?
Cuban-American singer and actress Gloria Estefan, hip-hop artist LL Cool J, TV writer and producer Norman Lear, singer and record producer Lionel Richie, and dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade will all be honored during the event on December 3, though the gala won’t be broadcast until December 26 at 9 p.m. on CBS.
How were these people selected?
The general public can submit names of American artists who have contributed significantly to the arts, and the Kennedy Center takes recommendations from the board of trustees and the artistic community, too. The roster of the Center’s Special Honors Advisory Committee is stacked: It’s chaired by Elaine Wynn, and includes Shonda Rhimes, David Bohnett, Herbie Hancock, Yo-Yo Ma, Chita Rivera, and more.
What was each honoree’s response to attending the gala with Trump?
Honorees Norman Lear and Carmen de Lavallade said they would not attend the pre-gala White House gathering in protest, while Gloria Estefan said she’d attend to confront the president on immigration. Lionel Richie expressed disappointment with the president, but said he’d “play it by ear,” while LL Cool J has not publicly said what his plans are.
And I’m sure other celebrities attend the gala, too.
Yup. Last year, Stephen Colbert hosted. Chris O’Donnell and Jeff Goldblum did special segments for the honorees; Sheryl Crow, Garth Brooks, Kings of Leon, and Bonnie Raitt performed. It’s unclear what the guest list will look like this year, though.
Which other presidents have skipped the event and why?
While Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter have all skipped the event, Trump will be first to do it simply to avoid “political distraction,” as the White House’s statement suggested. In 1994, Clinton missed the ceremony to travel to Hungary; in 1989, the first Bush was too busy with a summit in Malta to attend. And in 1979, Carter was dealing with a far more pressing situation: the Iran hostage crisis. In Clinton and Carter’s absences, their wives still attended.
How did the Kennedy Center respond to Trump’s decision not to attend?
While it’s a little shady to pull out of an event over criticism, the center seemed grateful that Trump chose to withdraw so that the honorees could attend without compromising their political beliefs. In its official statement, the center said it “respects the decision made today by the office of the President of the United States. In choosing not to participate in this year’s Honors activities, the Administration has graciously signaled its respect for the Kennedy Center and ensures the Honors gala remains a deservingly special moment for the Honorees. We are grateful for this gesture.”
So what happens now?
The State Department Dinner and Awards Ceremony and glitzy the Honors Gala will continue as planned, unchanged from previous years. The Kennedy Center says all five honorees will now attend. Trump’s absence means that the pre-gala White House reception, where honorees and VIPs typically hear the president say nice things about each honoree before the gala, has been canceled.
Should I really be surprised by all of this?
Remember how much trouble this administration had with finding stars to perform at his inauguration, and how Trump pulled out of attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where presidents traditionally get a playful ribbing? So, yeah, Trump having trouble with criticism from artists is not that shocking. With an event this charged, it’s unlikely the night will go off without at least one person condemning his administration.