Teresa Heinz Kerry, front row, from left, Kennedy Center Honorees Al Pacino, Mavis Staples, Martha Argerich, James Taylor, and Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter; rear row, from left, Secretary of State John Kerry, Kennedy Center Honorees Joe Walsh, Don Henley, and Timothy Schmit, and David Rubinstein are photographed following the State Department for the Kennedy Center Honors gala dinner, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf) The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The longest, loudest standing ovation of the Kennedy Center Honors gala wasn’t reserved for Al Pacino, Mavis Staples or the Eagles. Instead, it went to the man sitting to their left, attending his eighth and most likely his last honors presentation: President Barack Obama.
While politics were absent from the tributes to the performers who were recognized for influencing American culture Sunday night, the arts community’s affection for Obama — and its nervousness about President-elect Donald Trump — was palpable in the Kennedy Center Opera House.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama were introduced last, after Pacino and his fellow honorees: gospel singer Staples; pianist Martha Argerich; singer-songwriter James Taylor; and Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmidt and Joe Walsh, the surviving members of the Eagles.
After a sustained ovation, host Stephen Colbert greeted the crowd of Washington insiders as “endangered swamp-dwellers,” referencing Trump’s “drain the swamp” campaign pledge. He joked that Obama would need to receive the honor to attend again and that “unlike the Nobel Peace Prize, they don’t just give these away.”
The Kennedy Center Honors are in their 39th year, a period that has included six presidents — three Republicans, three Democrats — and all have taken time to welcome the recipients. But the 2016 election was noteworthy for the way A-list performers lined up behind Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, while Trump had relatively few celebrity endorsements.
Although the president has no say in who receives the awards, Colbert joked that next year’s honorees would include Scott Baio, Gary Busey and Meat Loaf.
“For the past eight years, the White House has given us a leader who’s passionate, intelligent and dignified,” Colbert said, and the crowd rose for another prolonged ovation, prompting Obama to stand and wave.