Kennedy Center Honors 2017 celebrates artists, skips political drama

WASHINGTON -- This year's Kennedy Center Honors recognizing outstanding artists and performers managed to skip the political drama that loomed over it earlier this year -- just ask honoree Norman Lear.

Ahead of Sunday night's festivities at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the longtime television producer behind "All in the Family" and other hits reacted with mock surprise when reminded that President Trump was not attending.

"Really? Wow!" Lear said as he entered the building. "I'm expecting a warm, funny, wonderful evening. My guess is that the focus tonight will be on the arts."

The president usually sits with the honorees and other guests. But Lear threatened to boycott the event over his opposition to Mr. Trump, and other artists expressed unease with the idea of meeting the president. A showdown was avoided when Mr. Trump announced in August that he and first lady Melania Trump would not attend.

Lear was interviewed in 2016 for CBS "Sunday Morning" and noticed that older characters were relegated to marginal roles on TV -- eccentric neighbors or wise-cracking grandparents. "Where are people my age?" he said. "There were no shows about us, about our lives, about our attitudes, about our problems."

Another honoree, rapper and actor LL Cool J, called the evening "an amazing, amazing moment" for a hip-hop artist who officials said was the youngest-ever Kennedy Center Honors recipient at 49.

He said there were many deserving rappers and performers from his generation but would not go so far as to say that anybody deserved the honor over him.

"I'm humble, but I'm not going to play pseudo-humble," he said before the program. "I'm the one!"

LL Cool J
LL Cool J arrives for the formal Artist's Dinner honoring the recipients of the 40th Annual Kennedy Center Honors hosted by United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the U.S. Department of State on Sun., Dec. 2, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Getty

The 40th annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremony also paid tribute to dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade and musicians Lionel Richie and Gloria Estefan. In addition to the Sunday ceremony, this year's recipients were honored Saturday at a gala State Department dinner.

De Lavallade spoke with CBS "Sunday Morning" and talked about potentially boycotting the ceremony if Mr. Trump attended.

"I'm not political," she said. "I have my own way of being political. That's the first time I've ever felt that I ... I just can't." 

In the past, most U.S. presidents have attended the ceremony, but it's not unprecedented for a sitting president to skip it. Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all missed ceremonies during their terms in office, but in all previous cases the first lady attended.

Kennedy Center officials didn't hide their relief when Mr. Trump announced he wouldn't attend. Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter and Chairman David M. Rubenstein released a statement saying they were "grateful" to the Trumps for avoiding a conflict that would overshadow the ceremony.

"In choosing not to participate in this year's honor's activities, the administration has graciously signaled its respect for the Kennedy Center and ensures the honors gala remains a deservingly special moment for the honorees," the statement said.

Their full statement was posted online earlier this year:

The 2017 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony will be held on Dec. 3 and air on CBS and CBS All Access on Dec. 26.