The stars and CEOs from Hollywood and Broadway who were eager to descend on the Obama White House for the annual Kennedy Center Honors this past weekend found the place a lot frostier and less hospitable than during the Bush years.
The show itself honoring Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro and Mel Brooks, among others, was a resounding hit, but the White House seemed to be still traumatized by the incursions of the social-climbing, state dinner-crashing Salahis.
While President Bush in past years shook every celebrity hand and posed for photos with visitors at the White House reception, the Obamas remained aloof, fleeing to their box at the Kennedy Center.
Stunned by recent security breaches, the White House kept guests shivering outside in 30-degree weather, opening the reception 10 minutes late and shuttling guests through 25 minutes of repeated screenings and pat-downs, all of which took place outside.
Several stars grumbled; one suggested to a social secretary that the Obama staff study the Academy Awards for lessons in celebrity management.
The Kennedy Center ceremony, produced by George Stevens Jr. and his son Michael, was aggressively warm and inclusive as if to compensate. Jon Stewart suggested that the only way to account for the phenomenon of Springsteen was that “Bob Dylan and James Brown obviously decided to have a baby.” Saluting Brooks, Carl Reiner noted that he had “a brilliant brain but an uncensorable tongue.” Meryl Streep observed that De Niro was a man of few words, but always seemed to be on the phone.
Opera diva Grace Bumbry was saluted by Aretha Franklin and Dave Brubeck by Herbie Hancock. Brubeck’s four sons contributed to a musical salute while John Mellencamp and Melissa Etheridge were among the participants in the Springsteen salute.
Per custom, the five honorees waved to the audience in response to periodic ovations. They were seated adjacent to the presidential and vice presidential boxes. The president and first lady darted backstage at intermission to shake hands with featured performers — “quick shakes, no eye contact,” blurted one startled singer.
The Kennedy Center Honors weekend each year is packed with receptions and cocktail parties, Hillary Clinton hosting one at the State Dept., George Stevens hosting a celeb-studded brunch, CBS chief Leslie Moonves presiding over a breakfast (CBS broadcasts the ceremony each year).
The White House event, however, which is usually the highlight, reflected not only tightened security but also cutbacks in food, alcohol and even Christmas decorations. The once-lavish buffets are spartan in the Obama White House. Invitations to presidential events in general have been curtailed.
Complaints have been registered that the annual Hanukkah party at the White House on Dec. 16 has been reduced in size by 50% — a cutback that has stirred the most angst among supporters since the 2005 incident when Orthodox Jews were served nonkosher lamb chops by the Bushies.
Besides slicing invitation lists, the White House staff seems to be still reeling from the gate crashing of Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the self-styled reality TV stars who invaded the Obamas’ first state dinner last month.
White House staffers maintained a stony distance during this weekend’s events. Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, sat with his wife for 20 minutes before Obama’s brief presentation Sunday, and hardly anyone approached him with a greeting, nor did he circulate.
“I never thought I’d miss the Bushes,” said one prominent Hollywood actor, “but this place seemed a lot warmer when they were here.”