President given standing ovations at performing arts awards snubbed by Donald Trump
“Tonight it is quite nice, very nice to see the presidential box once again being occupied,” David Letterman said to knowing applause. “And the same with the Oval Office.”
The comedian was introducing the 44th Kennedy Center Honors, where Joe Biden restored tradition merely with his presence after four years in which the annual gala was snubbed by then president Donald Trump and upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden was joined by the first lady, Jill Biden, the vice-president, Kamala Harris, and her husband, Doug Emhoff. House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and Chief Justice John Roberts ensured the heads of all three branches of government were present in the main opera house.
Lifetime achievement awards for artistic excellence were presented to the opera singer Justino Díaz, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Saturday Night Live (SNL) mastermind Lorne Michaels, actor and singer Bette Midler and folk music singer Joni Mitchell.
It was the first full ceremony for America’s most prestigious performing arts awards since the outbreak of Covid-19. Guests were required to show proof of vaccination and a recent negative test and to wear masks. It was also a return to political norms.
Trump’s chaotic, rule-breaking presidency often meant events such as these could be rocked by a single tweet. Biden came into office promising to restore order to Washington. His attendance at the Kennedy Center was one such small but symbolically important gesture and met with multiple standing ovations.
Biden held a black-tie ceremony for the five honourees earlier in the evening. Trump did not hold such a reception during his four years in office and did not attend the event, breaking from predecessors who nearly always showed up.
In lighthearted remarks about Michaels – the creator and executive producer of SNL – that again struck a different tone from Trump, Biden alluded to the comedy sketch show’s struggle to find an actor to impersonate him.
“And Lorne Michaels – Mr Wise Guy over here,” the president said. “He’s trying out seven guys to play me. As we say in our family: bless me father for I have sinned. I don’t know what’s going to happen. And, finally, it’s my turn to say something about him.”
Later, at the main event that ran for four hours, the audience was treated to a montage of SNL clips of actors’ impressions of presidents and other politicians which, perhaps to avoid any hint of controversy, did not include Trump or Biden.
Biden was not spared, however, by Michael Che, a co-host of the show’s popular Weekend Update slot. He said: “It’s so nerve-racking, I’ve not been here in DC since January 6.” After the audience erupted in laughter, he added: “It’s not what you think: I needed a new laptop.
“It’s a bit intimidating to do jokes in front of President Joe Biden. I keep having to remind myself, there’s no way he’s still awake right now.’
SNL cast members were cheered by members of the public as they entered the Kennedy Center, then sat together at a long table at a post-awards dinner in the atrium. Colin Jost was beside his partner, Hollywood actor Scarlett Johansson, who chatted with SNL alumnus and late night TV host Seth Meyers.
The event, which will be broadcast on the CBS television network on 22 December, began with cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing the national anthem and asking the audience to sing the final lines together.
It featured speeches by Jimmy Fallon, Goldie Hawn, Steve Martin and Martin Short and performances by Brandi Carlile, Andra Day, Norah Jones, Billy Porter, Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder.
Guests included the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, White House press secretary Jen Psaki, transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, former transportation secretary Elaine Chao, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and senators including Joe Manchin and Bob Menendez.
Letterman joked: “This night is about the honourees whose unique gifts cross all boundaries and represent all parties from the left to the far left.”
Earlier, Midler, who has received Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Golden Globe awards for a career spanning decades, told reporters on the red carpet: “It was divine at the White House. Very clean. Lovely. Great staff. Food was excellent. Wine was a little sweet.”
Gordy, a songwriter and record producer from Detroit who shaped the careers of singers including Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, said: “I think I’m in a dream, and it’s a wonderful dream.”
He added: “I had a wonderful talk with the president and I was very appreciative of him taking his time to come here when he’s trying to run the world and run all of the things that he has to do. I was thrilled. I didn’t realise he knew so much about Motown.”
Pelosi, also doing interviews on the red carpet, did not dwell on Trump’s past failures to attend. “I don’t want to go into what he didn’t do,” she said, before taking a playful dig at Biden’s Irish ancestry. “For all the years that I have known him, he has always been quoting poets and Irish music. I think he thinks being Irish gives him a little bit of an edge in terms of the arts.”