Guest after guest at the Kennedy Center Honors told reporters of the spirit of bipartisanship at the ceremony, what with the presence of President Joe Biden, Chief Justice John Roberts and congressional leaders of both parties.
But throughout the evening there still were reminders of the darker aspects of where politics has gone in recent years: Sacha Baron Cohen’s tribute to U2 was actually a satire on the extent to which anti-semitism has reemerged in discourse and threat, while the appearance of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, was greeted with a standing ovation for his recovery. He survived a brutal attack by an intruder at their San Francisco home, in what police say was the suspect’s attempt to harm his wife.
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On the red carpet, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) reminded reporters that even in a time of division, the Senate “has done a lot of great things over the past couple of years.”
“We’re becoming a little more polarized as a nation, and that’s being reflected in the people that are being elected,” he said. “So hopefully we can keep the partisan effort alive.”
The Kennedy Center Honors lacks the suspense and nationwide news attention of EGOT, but the show itself is one of the better produced and entertaining of all kudos broadcasts (this year from Done+Dusted’s David Jammy and Ian Stewart, alongside ROK Productions’ Elizabeth Kelly). And with POTUS in attendance, there are few other premiere events at the top of the D.C. social calendar.
That never really changed when Trump was president, even as he skipped the ceremony and declined to hold a pre-event White House reception.
Starting last year, Joe Biden returned that tradition, sprinkling his comments with words of graciousness and some levity for the honorees, George Clooney, U2, Tania León, Gladys Knight and Amy Grant, each of them, in their own way, activists in social causes or groundbreakers in representation.
This year, figures like Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle and Matt Damon attending the East Room ceremony for honoree Clooney.
“This is going to be a roast instead of an honor,” Clooney quipped to reporters, noting the teasing he’s gotten from some of his past co-workers.
During the ceremony, Roberts emerged with a dress featuring pictures of her Ticket to Paradise co-star, while Damon reminded that Clooney “was everyone’s 6th favorite Batman.” Richard Kind referred to a failed sitcom pilot that he and Clooney appeared in as young actors.
But the razzing often turned to tribute, particularly when Clooney’s father Nick told of his son’s “quick mind, vitality and empathy” and that he was “always so funny.”
Nick Clooney recalled that in 1968, when he was hosting a TV talk show and was writing some remarks in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, his family joined him in the green room.
“Seven year old George had a large paper bag. I asked him, what in the world was in the bag. Well, he went to the coffee table, turned the bag upside down. Out poured all of his toy guns.” His son told him that no one needs them. “None of them.”
“I tore up my speech,” Nick Clooney recalled. “Nothing I would have written would have been nearly as eloquent as what he had just done and said.”
George Clooney has for years been one of Hollywood’s leading liberal voices, including advocacy for gun reform and, internationally, for human rights and aid to the South Sudan region. Speaking to reporters before the ceremony, Clooney praised Biden as a president with “great intentions and he has passed some incredible legislation, which kind of gets overlooked. They are not very good at bragging about it. And so he’s done a really good job and I am very proud to be a supporter.”
As for Donald Trump’s first presidential bid, Clooney noted that he was “dead wrong” about the prospects for his first run in 2016 so “I am not allowed to talk about it anymore.”
D.C. soon will be different, Republicans take a slim majority in the House, with promises of investigations and, if the past is any guide, attacks on government arts funding.
Asked about what’s ahead, Clooney said, “Every two years these things turn around and governments change and we always worry about it for periods of time, and we find a way. I think we will find a way. We have to so far. Hopefully.”
“It’s going to be tricky,” he added. “It’s going to be a tough couple of years. I think it is going to be harder on the House because you are going to have to kowtow to some pretty extreme views on one side, and I think that’s going to make it difficult. And so I hope we can actually get past all the crap and actually deal with the things that people need to have dealt with. We’re trying to avoid World War, Ukraine continues to need to be supported. There’s so many things that actually matter that shouldn’t be politicized. So hopefully we can get around that. For a year.”
Asked whether he has ever been tempted to go into politics himself, Clooney’s wife Amal Clooney gave a rather grimaced face and he told reporters, “We have a really nice life.”
Biden will be prominently featured in the telecast of the Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 28. He, too, emphasized the unifying power of the arts, but viewers will get a bit of a reminder of what 2023 is likely to bring, as the president’s son Hunter sat behind him in the commander-in-chief’s theater box. The GOP has vowed to make Hunter Biden a subject of one or more probes or hearings.
Knight said she has long known Biden, who she described as “such a wonderful man.” She also said that she hopes that he runs for president again.
“He was talking about all of us coming together,” she said in an interview. “You know politics can get a little bit, ‘Well I want this,’ and, “He didn’t do that.’ Or ‘she did this.’ He was wide open tonight and lifting everybody up and letting them know that this is the lane that we should take in order for things to get better or to love each other more.”
In honoring Knight, Wesley Morris narrated a video in which he noted Knight’s breakthrough in 1952 on The Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, followed by her rise in the 1960s, when there was “racism everywhere, promoters refusing to pay, fourth rate lodging, threats on the road.”
“You had to be strong out there,” Morris said. “Hers is such a risky strength. It’s a strength that doesn’t seek to change the world or break the sound barrier. It’s a strength that wants to sing what we all know and what we have all been through, she’s never been afraid to show how intense devotion can sound.”
During her tribute, Garth Brooks said that Knight has roots in country music. He quipped, “As a matter of fact, her biggest hit started as a country ballad. After changing a couple lyrics and adding that signature touch…what was once Midnight Plane to Houston became Midnight Train to Georgia.”
The Pips sang Midnight, reminding a few politicos in the audience of Tuesday’s Senate runoff between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker, while Mickey Guyton sang The Best Things That Ever Happened To Me, Ariana DeBose sang a special arrangement of I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Patti LaBelle gathered the artists together to finish with That’s What Friends Are For.
In the tribute to Grant, Chita Rivera noted that she was the first contemporary Christian artist to be recognized by the Kennedy Center, as Sheryl Crow sang Baby. Baby; the Highwomen, including Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, Amanda Shire, sang Somewhere Down the Road and BeBe and CeCe Winans sang Sing Your Praise to the Lord. The segment finished with Dianne Reeves, Hozier, Jamala and Michael W. Smith with the Howard Gospel Choir.
Leon, the composer, performer and conductor, was honored by Carmen de Lavallade, with Alicia Hall Moran performing Oh Yemanja and Stride with Sphinx Organization, along with appearances by Joe Kwon of Avett Brothers and conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson, as well as Chloe Flower and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Sean Penn referred to U2 as “great musical poets for the ages,” and noted that Bono “has often said that being famous is nonsense. Celebrity is nonsense. But it is currency. And the band has spent its currency to show the usefulness of art in the world.”
Eddie Vedder performed Elevation and One, while Jamala, Hozier and Carlile, joined by Morris, Reeves, Guyton and Crow, finished the evening with Walk On.
“Theirs are songs that speak to the most personal and private places in our hearts, and then soar even higher to the macro strivings of the world at large,” Penn said. “They have always understood that art at its greatest truly moves the dial toward a care and a uniquely human inflection, that rhythmically thrills us with possibility, passion, prayer and pulsing percussion. And in these primal dreams that their music charges in us, are we too offered to join that risk? The risk that they take in believing in you, and shares with us the courage that we too might change the world.”
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