This weekend’s Kennedy Center Honors marked the last time President Bush and first lady Laura Bush sat alongside the honorees as they watched the tributes unfold on the stage of the institution’s opera house last night.
The outgoing president hosted not only one of his wife’s favorite musicians - it was the first time a first lady took the stage in the event’s 31-year history - but also one of his biggest Hollywood detractors.
George Stevens Jr., the man who created the Honors and still produces the yearly extravaganza, wasn’t worried about a dust-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 noted that Mr. Bush once “graciously honored” Robert Redford and that President Clinton “graciously honored” Charlton Heston. It’s the one weekend Washington is above politics, he said, 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 music legend George Jones, choreographer Twyla Tharp, actress and singer Barbra Streisand and rockers Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of the Who - were toasted by celebrities in arts and politics in a whirl of weekend events that culminated in Sunday night’s Honors Gala. The star-studded event at the Kennedy Center Opera House, hosted by presidential daughter Caroline Kennedy Schossberg, will be broadcast Dec. 30 on CBS.
The president and Mrs. Bush received the honorees at the White House Sunday. All eyes were on the president and the diva - Miss Streisand has been an outspoken critic of this administration. Rather than exchange barbs, though, the pair exchanged kisses.
Perhaps Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who hosted a State Department dinner Saturday where the honorees received their medallions, helped to smooth things over.
“You are an amazing talent, and a trailblazer, and an inspiration to many, especially women, in the arts,” the secretary told the songbird, diplomatically.
The gala, however, provided plenty of fireworks.
Actor Jack Black introduced the Who in a heartfelt and hilarious tribute, recalling that he fell in love with the band’s rock opera, “Tommy,” at 10: “No other band had the courage or sensibility to write these kinds of emotionally raw songs.”
Soul singer Bettye LaVette sang one of them, “Love Reign O’er Me,” beautifully, while Joss Stone flexed her worthy vocal cords on “My Generation,” and Rob Thomas did the same for “Baba O’Riley,” backed in the end by dozens of New York police officers and firefighters.
The Who was the first band to agree to perform at a benefit concert for the first responders after the September 11 attacks.
It was two rockers, though, who brought down the house.
Chris Cornell brought his considerable talents as a singer who can do sweet and scratchy equally well - rather like Who frontman Mr. Daltrey - to the anthem “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” He and Dave Grohl, with an energetic “Who Are You,” did that trademark Daltrey sing-scream pretty well.
Mr. Cornell, on the red carpet before Sunday night’s gala with his wife and adorable little daughter, said the Who influenced him “and I think anybody who does what I do, whether they know it or not. … Clearly, they were the first punk rock band. Not just in the nature of their music, but in their lyrics and subject matter … expressive and intelligent and extremely thoughtful.”
Mr. Grohl, who toasted the band at the State dinner, echoed his remarks that night, telling The Times, “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, D.C.”
Even Washington celebrities seemed star-struck. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, an accomplished photographer, played paparazzi with a digital SLR on Saturday night to humble stars like Mr. Jones, who was surprised “an old country boy like me” was being honored.
Perhaps he didn’t realize he has a fan in the first lady. He knows it now - the fellow Texan introduced the tribute to the country legend, talking about how much she and her husband love listening to his music. The president confirmed it by mouthing the words to “The Race Is On” from his box during last night’s performance by Garth Brooks.
The singer has plenty of other admirers, including other big names in country music. The gala featured performances by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Brad Paisley and Shelby Lynne, who sang a beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
Rock and country weren’t the only genres represented. Dancers Marcelo Gomes and Luciana Paris gracefully performed Miss Tharp’s “Sinatra Suite.”
“She liberated ballet and gave it a jolt of American energy,” Lily Tomlin said of the choreographer.
After actors Denzel Washington and Clint Eastwood paid tribute to Mr. Freeman, who was raised in Mississippi and still makes his home there, an all-star blues band backed “Queen of the Blues” Koko Taylor and then fellow Mississippian B.B. King.
Miss Rice on Saturday 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 said, “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.”
The gala ended with its most varied tribute, the one to Miss Streisand. Tony-winning singer Idina Menzel brought applause not just for her show-stopping singing but also for noting in the middle of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” that she’s the singer’s biggest fan. Even the fabulous Beyonce, who sang “The Way We Were,” had trouble topping that.
Sonny Bunch contributed to this report.