Norman Lear Talks Kennedy Center Honor and Skipping Trump’s White House

Norman Lear Austin Television Festival
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WASHINGTON — Norman Lear is among the honorees of the upcoming Kennedy Center Honors, but he will be skipping a longtime tradition of the December weekend: an annual pre-ceremony reception at the White House, hosted by President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump.

The reason, Lear said in a phone interview with Variety, is over the way that the administration has treated the arts — including a budget proposal that calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“I think the arts are important for our humanity, and that includes this administration,” said Lear, 95, who was preparing to record his latest podcast, “All of the Above.”

If Trump’s position changes on the arts and humanities, “maybe that will cause me to change my mind,” he said. Lear opposed Trump during the presidential election, and made some comparisons to the GOP nominee to his most famous character, Archie Bunker from “All in the Family.”

The president does not have a role in selecting the honorees, but has in past years spoken at the White House ceremony and paid tribute to each one. In 2008, one of the honorees was Barbra Streisand, a consistent critic of President George W. Bush. She attended the reception where, to her surprise, he gave her a hug and a kiss.

The circumstances are different this year, especially with the proposal to zero out the NEA and NEH.

Lear said that he got a phone call from Deborah Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center, several weeks ago informing him of the honor. While grateful for the recognition, Lear said he “just told them before they accepted my acceptance, ‘I will have to tell you how I feel.'”

“Feelings don’t go away, thoughts and opinions don’t vanish,” Lear said. “I heard [about the honor] and they understood exactly how I felt.”

They went forward with Lear as one of the honorees, along with Gloria Estefan, LL Cool J, Lionel Richie, and Carmen de Lavallade.

A spokeswoman for the center said that the other honorees have indicated they will attend the White House ceremony. Estefan, who has been outspoken about Trump, told the New York Times that she hoped to tell the president at the White House ceremony, “We have seen a lot of anti-immigrant backlash this year, so for us, it may hold even more beauty than for someone who has lived here all their lives. To get this kind of award is so American.” Estefan’s spokeswoman declined further comment.

Lear said that he was especially pleased that Estefan was among the honorees. They have worked together recently, as she did the theme song for the revival of “One Day at a Time.”

Lear still may come in contact with Trump at the ceremony itself, as the president and first lady traditionally sit with the honorees during the Kennedy Center ceremony.

So should he come face-to-face with the president, what would he say to Trump?

“I have no idea. I am too much in the moment for the ceremony,” Lear said.