Back when I wrote for the show, the big news story concerned former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who had just resigned as Obama’s secretary of defense. David Letterman, who introduced the Tom Hanks film, pitched this joke:
I ran the joke by George, who laughed but said, unfortunately, the show wouldn’t allow it. “It’s a political put down. The joke will make half the people in the audience feel uncomfortable,” he explained. I went back to the dressing room to give Dave the bad news.
“O.K., we won’t do Hagel,” Dave said. “Name another stooge.”
“I don’t think any name will work,” I said. “The construction of the joke depends on someone powerful now driving a cab.”
Dave turned to a writer that he’d brought along.
“Hey, you’re good at naming stooges,” Dave said.
“What about Harry Reid?” the writer said. “He used to be majority leader of the Senate but now he won’t be.”
“Guys,” I said. “It’s a non-partisan evening.”
They dropped the joke.
This exchange popped into my head when I read the announcement that “First Lady Melania Trump along with her husband, President Donald Trump,” had decided not to attend the 2017 show. Later, the White House spokesperson explained that the couple wanted “to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction.” The announcement was as graciously worded as it was cowardly.
John Adams wrote, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy . . . in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
Arts are a luxury, proof that a civilization has risen above “politics and war.” When the First Lady and her husband pull out of a national celebration of music and dance and television (the 21st-century equivalent of tapestry), they are really turning their backs on progress. Sure, nominees Norman Lear and ballerina Carmen de Lavallade had already broken tradition by saying they’d skip the pre-show reception at the White House. But I bet President Trump was more put out by 2017 honoree Gloria Estefan’s statement that she would attend the White House reception in the hopes of confronting Trump on immigration policy. Being rebuked or challenged clearly infuriates Trump. Faced with the prospect of having to defend his own position, or even just hear the opinion of a Cuban-born woman, he bolted.
I imagine the producers of this year’s Honors felt some relief when they got word of this defection. It will probably be easier to book talent for the show now. Still, for me, the Trumps’ decision belongs on Amy Siskind’s Authoritarian Watch List of “things subtly changing around you.”
During the 2014 Sting tribute, I stood in the wings, 20 feet away as Lady Gaga played the piano with a full band behind her. She brought tears to Sting’s eyes—the Honors’ money shot—as she crooned his own words to him:
If I ever lose my faith in you
There’ll be nothing left for me to do
For those of us losing faith in America, there’s still a lot that we can do. The president ditching the Kennedy Center Honors is obviously not as frightening as him ditching voter’s rights, environmental laws, and the Constitutional right to equal protection under the law. We need artists more than ever to write protest songs, paint posters, sing out, and inspire us with their words and movements.
The Kennedy Center Honors reflects our humanity and higher purpose. We are a great nation in part because we value culture. All President Trump had to do was put on a tux and not fall asleep. Or if that was asking too much, just put on a tux and not snore too loudly. He should face the music. By not attending the gala, he once again demonstrates that he has no idea what makes America great.