The Kennedy Center Honors had a 39-year tradition of putting politics aside. In the ’90s, President Bill Clinton bestowed the award on Republican icon Clint Eastwood and NRA hero Charlton Heston. At the 2008 Honors gala at the White House, George Bush gave Barbra Streisand an awkward-but-earnest kiss—commenting on the moment Streisand said, “Art transcends politics.”
This year art hasn’t transcended. This year the Kennedy Center Honors crashed head-on into a Trump administration set on crushing government support of the arts (remember, his first budget proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities entirely).
News of the honorees—Cuban-born pop star Gloria Estefan, hip hop pioneer LL Cool J, dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, legendary TV producer Norman Lear, and Top 40 king Lionel Richie—broke on Aug. 3. Lear announced that day he wouldn’t attend the traditional December gala hosted by the White House, rejecting the invite based on President Trump’s choice to “neglect totally the arts and humanities.” On Aug. 17, de Lavallade followed suit calling out Trump for his “socially divisive and morally caustic narrative.” Any chance of reconciliation between artists and president died the next day when Trump announced he and the first lady would not participate in the event “to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction.”
For the first time in decades, the White House won’t host a gala reception. On Dec. 3 the presidential box at the Kennedy Center will likely sit empty. The schism creates a prime opportunity to turn the whole ceremony, which airs Dec. 26 on CBS, into a long, nasty roast of Trump—something that could forever change the nature of the event.
When asked if the producers would make an extra effort to keep politics off the stage, the Center directed the spotlight back on the honorees.
“Every year, the focus of the Kennedy Center Honors is always on the honorees and their incredible artistic accomplishments,” public relations director Michelle A. Pendoley wrote Quartz in an email. “The Center is a nonpartisan performing arts organization.”
With each statement and press release, the Center has tried to distance itself from controversy. Variety senior editor Ted Johnson, who covers the entertainment industry and politics from Washington, DC, has heard the organization is nervous the night will devolve into a roast. Johnson says the nerves are justified.
“The Kennedy Center has to walk a fine line,” Johnson said. “There are major issues about arts funding and this White House’s attack on the arts, but Trump still has this influence over the Kennedy Center that can’t be ignored.”
Kennedy Center artist committee member John Lloyd Young, a Tony-winner best known for his work in the musical Jersey Boys, believes Trump’s decision to not take part has only fanned the flames. Appointed by president Obama to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, Young resigned from the post in August with the rest of the committee following Trump’s refusal to condemn neo-Nazis, white supremacists.
“Paradoxically, I think Trump’s boycotting of the event will make it more political than if he goes,” said Young, who will attend his third Honors ceremony next month. “It’s not supposed to a political gathering, but our artistic community has been insulted by him in multiple ways. I think a reaction to that will come through that night.”
With these honorees, it’s hard to envision a reaction not peeking through. For the first time, the Center will celebrate four artists of color. That alone could be taken as a poke at Trump. A deeper look at the selections reveals a bold rejection of the current White House through words and deeds. Gloria Estefan took on then-candidate Trump’s racial attacks by helping to produce protest song “We’re All Mexican.” Norman Lear, who created radical, progressive (and hilarious) programs such as All in the Family and The Jeffersons, was an early and vocal Trump critic. LL Cool J will become the first hip hop honoree behind the backdrop of a president who has repeatedly failed to disavow white nationalism.
The honorees were chosen based on the recommendations of the Center’s Special Honors Advisory Committee and confirmed by the Executive Committee of the Center’s Board of Trustees. Translation: the process is an opaque one. But most of the Center’s committee and board members were appointed during the Obama administration, so ideological friction between the Center and White House is normal—board members such as Shonda Rhimes and Susan Rice wouldn’t be expected to green light an award for Ted Nugent.
However, the 2017 nominees may not represent a troll of Trump, but an effort to wrangle artists who would agree to show their faces in Trump’s DC.
“When you accept a Kennedy Center Honor, you are supposed to agree to do all the ceremonial things they put you through,” said Washington Post chief theater critic Peter Marks, who has covered the Center since 2002. “The fact that so many of these honorees declined to go the White House suggests to me that Kennedy Center was having a hard finding people who would even agree to be honored.”
Considering this, maybe the class of 2017 is the least controversial group the Center could cobble together. If the Center really wanted to send Trump a message, the honorees could have been very different. For instance, Joan Baez, Spike Lee, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bette Midler, and Audra McDonald, would have probably turned the night into an outright call for revolution.
Even if the honorees weren’t an overt swipe at Trump, the ceremony could still be presidential slug fest. It’s almost impossible to imagine the night unfolding without a few pointed jabs.
Last month at the Kennedy Centers’ ceremony awarding David Letterman the Mark Twain Prize, Jimmy Kimmel didn’t hesitate to ridicule Trump while talking about Letterman’s retirement in 2015. “It’s like you went out for cigarettes one day and left us in the hands of our abusive, orange stepfather,” Kimmel said. Closing the event, Letterman brought it back to politics quoting Twain: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it” (maybe not coincidentally, Trump tweeted the same quote in 2014).
It shouldn’t come as a surprise comedians are using award podiums to voice their rage or gallows humor. But earlier this month at the Country Music Awards, typically safe haven for Republicans, Trump was the butt of the night’s biggest joke. Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood openly mocked the president with a dark twist on Underwood’s hit “Before He Cheats” called “Before He Tweets”: “And it’s fun to watch, yeah, that’s for sure, until Little Rocket Man starts a nuclear war, and then maybe next time he’ll think before he tweets.” Trolling Trump has become the norm for any awards show.
“Like the other shows, the Honors are a scripted production, but people may feel compelled to go off script in this climate,” Marks said. “It would make sense and I could see that happening depending on who is up on stage that night.”
The Center has yet to announce the host—Stephen Colbert filled that role since 2016. At last year’s event, Colbert’s remarks nipped at Trump, but the host spent more time celebrating Obama during 44’s final visit to the presidential box. With that box empty and Trump waist-deep in controversies about colluding with Russia, obstructing justice, and failing to help Puerto Rico, how can Colbert or any host not take a few shots?
But Trump may have the least to fear from the host. Most of the night will feature younger artists playing tribute to the icons. Younger typically translates to more bold and brash. The best-known LL Cool J disciples are virulently anti-Trump—from Sean Diddy Combs to T.I., Eminem to Kendrick Lamar, the hip hop community has rejected Trump at every turn. The obvious picks to fete Gloria Estefan (Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez, Olga Tañón) have spent the fall raging against Trump’s mishandling of the disaster in Puerto Rico. Even the expected older stars have been championing resistance at every turn: Rob Reiner, who got his start on Lear’s “All in the Family,” is a both probable candidate to honor Norman Lear and a rabid Trump opponent.
Any amount of prognosticating relies on the past being predictive of the future. Trump makes this difficult. The day before the Honors, the president could tweet something offensive about Lear or Estefan. Or he could tweet a heartfelt congratulations to all the artists. He could fire special counsel Robert Mueller, or be indicted by him, or name him his new White House chief of staff. Nothing can be counted on, least of all Trump.
“He could still show up at the Kennedy Center on the night of the event and play master of the party from the Presidential box. Who knows with him?” Marks said. “What we do know is that nothing will be the same. I think the most interesting question is not what will happen that night but what becomes of Kennedy Center Honors. Does it become a running soap opera about if the president will or won’t lend the prestige of the White House to the event? Or will there be a shift where honorees have to agree with the policies of the sitting administration?”
So maybe Ted Nugent’s award isn’t that far off. Or maybe the White House ends the Honors entirely. Either way, art won’t be transcending politics on Dec. 3.