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 honors 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”. ”