- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2008

This weekend’s Kennedy Center Honors marks the last time President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush will sit alongside the honorees as they watch the tributes unfolding on the stage of the institution’s opera house. The outgoing president will host not only one of his wife’s favorite musicians but also one of his biggest Hollywood detractors.

George Stevens Jr., the man who created the Honors 31 years ago and still produces the yearly extravaganza, wasn’t worried about a bust-up over the weekend, though.

“My theory is the arts trump politics,” he told The Washington Times during the rehearsal on Saturday for Sunday night’s big event. He notes that President Bush has already “graciously honored” Robert Redford and Ruby Dee, while Bill Clinton “graciously honored” Charlton Heston. It’s the one weekend Washington is above politics, he says, when people of all parties come together to celebrate artistic achievement.

“That’s what makes the Kennedy Center Honors special.”

All that star power doesn’t hurt, either.

This year’s honorees — actor Morgan Freeman, country crooner George Jones, choreographer Twyla Tharp, actress and singer Barbra Streisand and rockers Peter Townshend and Roger Daltrey of the Who — were toasted by celebrities in arts and politics in a group of events this weekend that would culminate in last night’s Honors Gala. The star-studded event at the Kennedy Center Opera House will be broadcast on CBS Dec. 30.

The six honorees received their medallions at a State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday evening. This administration might have received more than its share of criticism from the outspoken Miss Streisand, but Miss Rice was generous in her remarks.

“You are an amazing talent, and a trailblazer, and an inspiration to many, especially women, in the arts,” the secretary told the songbird.

Miss Rice couldn’t resist making a reference to the one man in Washington who could rival any of the honorees for star power, President-elect Barack Obama. She noted that Mr. Freeman played a president in the movie “Deep Impact,” and laughed, “an African-American president of the United States, most people thought that would happen when a comet hit. But wonder of wonders, fiction has become true.”

Mr. Stevens thinks the annual event has topped Washington’s — and perhaps the nation’s — cultural calendar “because it has the dimensions of the arts and politics and business.” It’s one-stop-shopping.

Even Washington celebrities seemed a bit star struck. Senator Patrick Leahy, an accomplished photographer, played paparazzi with a digital SLR on Saturday night to humble stars like Mr. Jones, who said he was surprised “an old country boy like me” was being honored. Perhaps he didn’t realize he has a fan in the first lady.

The President and Mrs. Bush received the Honorees at the White House on Sunday. There’s no word on how the meeting between Miss Streisand and President Bush went. The gala, however, is expected to provide many fireworks.

While Mr. Stevens shared some time with a reporter at the rehearsal, his son Michael Stevens, who has helped his father write and produce the event for six years now, interrupted.

“The house is vibrating,” he says, as rehearsals for the Who tribute get underway. It’s strange that the younger Mr. Stevens is the one worried about the sound levels as some of the biggest names in rock show off their versions of Who classics. The elder Stevens admits he let his son book those acts. The founder of the American Film Institute does add, though, that when it comes to film, “I’m unrivaled.” He speaks with excitement when he talks about the stars lined up to pay homage to Mr. Freeman.

The Kennedy Center Honors are one of America’s highest artistic honors and both members of the Who, one of the most successful bands of the British invasion, were pleased to receive them.

“It’s been very pleasant,” Mr. Townsend said Saturday night. “I think if it was happening in Britain, it would be more stiff.”

Mr. Daltrey said that “coming from our country and getting this, it means so much. Especially with rock ‘n’ roll, which is so indigenously American.”

They were toasted at the dinner by Dave Grohl, frontman of the Foo Fighters, who talked about how their distinctive sound influenced his own music. “They seemed like snotty punks from England and I think that if it weren’t for the Who, we wouldn’t have had punk rock, which was the music I grew up playing here in Washington, DC,” he told The Times.

Additional reporting by Sonny Bunch

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