WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Trump administration’s political woes hung like a cloud over the U.S. State Department Saturday night at the first of two events held to celebrate this year’s recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. But a spontaneous series of inspiring life stories delivered by honorees and their friends turned the evening into an uplifting occasion.
The setting was the State Department’s neoclassic diplomatic greeting rooms, packed with priceless heirlooms from the nation’s attic. It is there each year that some 200 invited guests toast honorees as they receive their festive ribbons during an after-dinner ceremony. It is a coveted invitation for artists, politicos and supporters of the Kennedy Center. It’s an intimate affair, in contrast to Sunday’s black-tie gala that will be filmed for a CBS special to air Dec. 26.
This year’s KenCen spotlight has fallen on dancer/choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, musical superstars Gloria Estefan, LL Cool J, Lionel Richie, and pioneering writer-producer and entrepreneur Norman Lear.
Official host for the occasion was embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who paused from his welcoming duties to refute media reports that he will soon be fired by President Trump. Anti-Trump fervor is so strong among honorees that the White House back in August canceled the traditional reception held there when Lear, Richie and de Lavallade said they would not attend. Trump even bowed out of this year’s honors, a rare occurrence for the U.S. commander-in-chief.
Trump’s absence was perfectly fine with Lear. The 95-year-old industry legend told Variety he was “happy not to go to the White House,” but doubted that he would enjoy a politics-free weekend. “You can’t avoid the politics – my head is spinning,” he said, referring to the never-ending swirl of controversy and partisan battles surrounding the Trump administration.
While studiously avoiding overtly political statements during the evening’s formal presentations, the honorees articulated their personal experiences battling discrimination and prejudice, ending their remarks with expressions of defiance, hope, and insight into the bridge-building role of the arts.
Emcee for the occasion was 2001 KenCen honoree Julie Andrews, who kept a loose rein as she introduced speakers to reflect on each honoree. Per a recently altered format, honorees are invited but not required to make personal remarks following testimonials, their only speaking obligations of the weekend.
First up was Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds to tout his longtime chum Richie as a “surprisingly nice” guy for one who’s a “superstar genius.” Richie opened with a vigorous message on the three simple words that epitomize his philosophy and success: “I love you.”
“I’m in the business of reminding the world that love is the answer,” said Richie of his repertoire of hits, noting that fans want to hear him say it wherever he travels. The message that never grows old, he mused.
Cuba-born Estefan was saluted by 2015 KenCen honoree Rita Moreno. After reviewing her personal attributes and career successes, Moreno got to the point: “Not lost on me is that one immigrant girl can honor another for her work. This is the stuff of the American dream, and we are living every minute of it,” she said.
In her remarks, Estefan thanked Puerto Rico-born Moreno for being “an example for all immigrants in this country.” She said her father brought his family to the U.S. to enjoy freedom, but then issued a warning. “You can lose this freedom. We must hold these truths to be self-evident,” Estefan said.
LL Cool J was toasted by Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, who sported a black AC/DC T-shirt for the occasion.
“This is crazy, man,” McDaniels said as he gazed around the room full of formal attire. “You all have no idea how crazy this is” for rap stars to be included. He then brought down the house with a ribald testimonial interrupted by a cell phone call from his wife – which he answered – while explaining the significance of his fellow artist’s unorthodox rise to success as a solo artist in an era of groups.
The sentiments were echoed by LL Cool J, who described himself and his compatriot as “the guys on the other side of the tracks.” But he said, “I want you to know that the inner city is a whirlpool. Every now and then somebody like me will make it out. What you’re looking at is possibilities – what every young inner-city black man could potentially be if given the opportunity and if someone put their arm around him.”
Surrounded by family and colleagues including 2001 honoree Quincy Jones and CBS Corp. chairman-CEO Leslie Moonves, the “NCIS: Los Angeles” star assured that when talented people from underprivileged backgrounds are given an opportunity, “they don’t always squander it.”
Toasting de Lavallade was actress/choreographer Debbie Allen, who praised her longtime friend’s persistence to overcome racism and other roadblocks en route to success. The soft-spoken de Lavallade, who along with her late husband Jeffrey Holder frequently attended the honors as guests and entertainers, delivered an impassioned message about the ability of the arts to break barriers. “Creativity is the most important thing we have in this world,” she said.
Last to come was the testimonial for Lear, which was delivered by respected journalist and commentator Bill Moyers. “Every stream of American life that converged here tonight began in the nurturing of this man, whose vision of ‘All in the Family’ opened the road to many travelers who had never been allowed on it,” he opined.
Moyers said that longtime friend Lear “revolutionized television, put primetime in long pants, and baptized America in a cold bath of truth.” He did so by invoking the plain speech of everyday people to peel away the whitewash of hypocrisy, and persisting against denial of race, gender and justice. “And he did it all with laughter,” said Moyers, praising the “moral indignation for which [Lear] has given his life.”
Lear trundled to the podium and gazed around the room. “Holy s—,” he said to laughter. Lear confessed to being overcome by being in the famous Ben Franklin room, “crying over every word” of LL Cool J’s impassioned remarks.
The World War II vet recalled that when he was discharged after the war, he recalled being “in love with America.” He said his form of patriotism means embracing the promises America has made to offer all citizens equal opportunity and equal justice under the law. Lear added that while those words may still be deep in our hearts, “we have promises to deliver.”
(Pictured: Back row: LL Cool J and Lionel Richie. Front row: Carmen de Lavallade, Norman Lear and Gloria Estefan)