×

Kennedy Center Honorees Talk American Dream, Overcoming Adversity in Trump-Free Ceremony

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)

More Biz

  • Grammy Awards 60th Annual Grammy Awards,

    Recording Academy Paid Millions Annually to Outside Law Firms

    Among the concerns listed in a memo sent to the Recording Academy’s head of HR by president/CEO Deborah Dugan before she was placed on administrative leave Thursday was an item about the organization’s “exorbitant and unnecessary” legal fees to outside law firms, according to sources familiar with the document. According to the most recent 990 [...]

  • Chuck D of Public EnemyGods of

    Public Enemy’s Chuck D Slams Grammys Over Deborah Dugan Ouster

    Chuck D, frontman of Public Enemy — who are receiving the Lifetime Achievement Awards at the Grammys next week — posted a long statement on Instagram criticizing the Recording Academy over its sudden ousting of new president/CEO Deborah Dugan yesterday. Dugan, who had been in the job only five months, was placed on administrative leave after [...]

  • Any Given Wednesday With Bill Simmons

    Spotify in Talks to Acquire Bill Simmons' The Ringer: Report

    Spotify is in early talks to acquire The Ringer, the digital content and podcast network launched by ESPN alum Bill Simmons in 2016, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. A representative for Spotify declined to comment on the report. Reps for Ringer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Spotify’s [...]

  • Deborah Dugan arrives for the 20th

    Deborah Dugan's Recording Academy Ouster Follows Multiple Tussles With Board

    “Change is afoot,” Deborah Dugan said more than once during interviews with Variety in the weeks before her shocking removal from her post as president/CEO of the Recording Academy after just five months on the job. During those conversations, Dugan spoke of changes she planned to make in the Academy’s staffing organization, its Board of [...]

  • Weinstein Trial

    Does Harvey Weinstein's Jury Selection Strategy Make Any Sense?

    Harvey Weinstein’s defense team appeared to have a strategy for jury selection: keep white women off the panel. They didn’t put it that way, because picking jurors based on race or gender is illegal. But on Thursday and again on Friday, prosecutor Joan Illuzzi accused the defense of using its peremptory challenges to systematically exclude [...]

  • Bob Iger

    Bob Iger's Disney Compensation Drops to $47.5 Million in 2019

    Disney chief Bob Iger saw his compensation for 2019 drop to $47.5 million, a 28% decline from his 2018 pay package. Disney’s leader earned $3 million in salary and a $21.8 million bonus, plus another $10 million in stock awards and $9.6 million in stock options, Disney disclosed in the company’s annual proxy filing with [...]

  • Peter Chernin'Spies in Disguise' film premiere,

    Disney and Chernin Entertainment Parting Ways (EXCLUSIVE)

    Disney and Peter Chernin are ending Chernin Entertainment’s long-standing film production deal with 20th Century Fox (recently rebranded to 20th Century Studios), Variety has learned. The split was a mutual and amicable one, driven by the simple fact that Disney rarely brings on third-party partners to finance its feature films. “I have nothing but praise for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content