Trump is elephant in the room at Kennedy Center Honors

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In joyous celebration of US’s cultural achievements – and ethnic diversity –president is never mentioned by name

Betsy DeVos nodded gently to a hip-hop beat. Wilbur Ross sat a few seats away from Star Wars director JJ Abrams. Steven Mnuchin clapped robotically from a balcony shared with Gloria Estefan and Lionel Richie.

The biggest night on Washington’s cultural calendar delivered the usual mix of politicians and celebrities on Sunday but lacked the one person who is both: President Donald Trump.

It was the 40th annual Kennedy Center Honors and only the fourth time the president did not attend, following Jimmy Carter in 1979, George Bush in 1989 and Bill Clinton in 1994. Trump’s absence spared organisers the embarrassment of a potential walkout by honorees or political insults being flung at him from the stage.

The decision was made in August after honoree Norman Lear, a TV producer and founder of the progressive group People For the American Way, threatened to boycott rather than attend any aspect of the ceremonies involving the divisive president. With other honours recipients expressing support for Lear’s position, Trump announced that he and first lady Melania would skip the showpiece.

“I think it’s understood why and how it all happened,” said Julie Andrews, the British actor and singer and a member of the special honours advisory committee. “I wasn’t party to the discussions that went on but I do understand that it was to make this evening as viable and successful as possible and I think he and his lovely wife chose to do the right thing.”

Even so, there was the spectacle of Trump’s education secretary, DeVos, his treasury secretary, Mnuchin, the commerce secretary, Ross, and the top economic adviser Gary Cohn being confronted with a joyous celebration of America’s cultural and racial diversity with lots of political subtext, though the president was never mentioned by name.

The comedian Dave Chappelle, referring to an original copy of the Declaration of Independence bought by Lear and displayed on stage, joked that everything was for sale. “Including our founding document, it turns out,”, adding that it would be likely to fetch “a lot of roubles”. ”

Among the star turns were Meryl Streep, the Oscar-winning actor who has clashed with Trump, and Jon Batiste, the music director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which ridicules the president and his cabinet on a nightly basis. But neither touched on politics and, whereas Colbert delivered barbs as master of ceremonies last year, this time the programme dispensed with the role of host, perhaps wary that whoever filled the role would find political provocations irresistible.

Instead there were cameos by Abrams, Anthony Anderson, Quincy Jones, Queen Latifah, Leona Lewis, Rob Reiner, Kenny Rogers and Stevie Wonder in a spectacle of song, dance, film clips and heartfelt speeches. (Much has changed in a year: the 2016 performers included Kevin Spacey, now in disgrace.)

On the red carpet before the black tie event, Lear, producer of All in the Family and other shows pioneering for their exploration of race relations and other social issues, clearly did not feel that Trump’s no-show hurt the event’s prestige. “It wasn’t a hand I needed to shake,” the 95-year-old said.

But not all the honorees were sworn anti-Trumpers. Richie has known the billionaire businessman for about 30 years and played many private concerts at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. “As far as hangout buddy, no. As an employer, yes,” he said. “I love Mar-a-Lago, it’s a great place.”

Asked whether he applauded Trump’s absence, the 68-year-old replied: “What I’m going to do tonight is not focus on that. I’m going straight for the fact: have you seen this on my neck? [the Kennedy Center rainbow-ribboned medallion] That’s where we’re going, celebrating the arts. Let’s just talk about it: I’m graduating with the class of Norman Lear. Excuse me?!”

Fellow singer Gloria Estefan also has a long history with Trump. She launched a 2004 tour from one of his properties and her husband, Emilio, was a judge on many of his Miss Universe contests. “I’m thankful he chose not to come because all it does is overshadow the accomplishments of people that have spent a lifetime trying to something,” she said. “I thought it was very thoughtful.”

Cuban-born Estefan criticised the president’s decision to restore travel restrictions on the island. “I wish certain things could be improved,” she said of his tenure so far. “Let’s give him some time. Maybe he’ll surprise us.”

LL Cool J – real name James Todd Smith – became the first hip-hop artist (and at 49, the youngest person) to be a Kennedy Center honoree. He declined to say whether he would have gone to the traditional White House reception. “I think in this environment, right now, the political climate can be a bit distracting and tonight it’s about the arts, and so that’s what we’re focused on.

“I’m not looking to use this as a soapbox to take shots or try to be divisive. I don’t want to go there. I think it’s about the love, the culture. I want hip-hop to be remembered as a unifying force. We’re coming in here and it’s going to be unity and music and love and art and dance and TV.”

In a list striking for its multiculturalism, the other honoree was the African-American dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, 86, who received testimonials from Streep, who was her pupil at Yale University, and the dancer Misty Copeland, who said: “Me, as a black prima ballerina dancing at the Metropolitan Opera House, I stand on your shoulders.”

Trump’s allies were reluctant to speak about his absence. DeVos said during the interval: “I think that decision was made months ago. I just happen to be here.” Cohn denied that he was disappointed: “No. That was his decision.” Senator Rand Paul and Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the former president John F Kennedy, declined to comment.

But Senator Jeff Flake, an outspoken critic of Trump, praised the president for his absence: “Well, it sounded like it was the right thing to do, just given what other people have said. So it was probably magnanimous.”

Other figures in attendance included the Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Obama White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, the former national security adviser Susan Rice and the British ambassador Kim Darroch.

The recipients were also honoured on Saturday at a gala state department dinner, hosted by Andrews, where Lear, a white American born in Connecticut, joked: “I’m very proud to be among these honorees representing my race.” The programme will be televised on America’s CBS channel on 26 December.

Asked if Trump would be invited next year, Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center, said: “Absolutely. We take it one day at a time. It is important to have the president of the United States, to have that individual, as the highest in the land, appreciating and understanding and telling the world how important the arts are.”

Source : TheGuardian

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