Obama to join Kennedy Center Honors gala for last time

The Kennedy Center Honors are in their 39th year, a period that has included six presidents

WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 2: (AFP OUT) President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive at the Kennedy Center Honors reception at the White House on December 2, 2012 in Washington, DC. The Kennedy Center Honors recognized seven individuals - Buddy Guy, Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Natalia Makarova, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant - for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (AP) — This year’s Kennedy Center Honors gala will be bittersweet for some because it’s the last one under President Barack Obama, but the festivities aren’t likely to be much different next year under President-elect Donald Trump, the Kennedy Center president said.

Actor Al Pacino, rock band the Eagles, pianist Martha Argerich, gospel singer Mavis Staples and singer-songwriter James Taylor will receive the honors on Sunday. The annual awards go to performers who influence American culture through the arts.

Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter told The Associated Press that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who handed out medals to the performers on Saturday night, have enthusiastically welcomed the honorees every year, and the honorees have been eager to spend time with them. Kerry in particular went out of his way this year, flying from Rome to Washington on Saturday attend the honors dinner before a scheduled trip to Berlin on Sunday.

Obama “has a very personal relationship with quite a number of artists,” Rutter said. “There is a sense from many of the artists that they are fond of him and respect him and appreciate him. I think there’s some bittersweet (feelings).”

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.

“We can’t really anticipate or speculate how things are going to work” under Trump, Rutter said. “Each president has their own style and their own connection to the arts, but each of them have participated and been enthusiastic.”

Rutter, who has led the Kennedy Center for the past two years, said she’s not aware of any performer turning down the honor for political reasons, and she doesn’t expect that to happen in the future.

“Let’s remember that this is the Kennedy Center Honors and that we are the nation’s cultural center,” she said. “It’s not technically the president that’s bestowing the honor. It’s the Kennedy Center. I anticipate that we will have a wonderful selection of honorees next year.”

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