Biden returns restores tradition, returning to Kennedy Center Honors
President Biden and a who’s who of Washington clapped and laughed as they marked a celebration at the Kennedy Center Honors that seemed nearly normal amid the coronavirus pandemic, but the ceremony couldn’t shake mentions of the 46th president’s predecessor.
The scene Sunday at the Kennedy Center of a packed audience singing along to tributes to this year’s five Honorees — Bette Midler, “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Joni Mitchell and opera singer Justino Díaz — was likely unimaginable just a year ago as COVID-19 gripped the country. The 2020 ceremony was postponed and held earlier this year. Attendees at the 2021 Honors, the Kennedy Center’s prestigious award for “lifetime artistic achievement,” were required to wear face masks and submit both proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test.
But perhaps the most notable guest among the high-wattage star power was Biden. Throughout his entire time in office, then-President Trump bucked tradition and opted against the long-held practice of a sitting president attending the annual gala following criticism from several of the Honorees in 2017.
Biden received a standing ovation on Sunday — one of two throughout the evening — when David Letterman noted the commander in chief’s presence.
“Tonight it’s quite nice, very nice, to see the presidential box once again being occupied,” the former “Late Show” host and a frequent critic of Trump said to extended applause for Biden.
“And same with the Oval Office,” Letterman cracked.
David Rubenstein, the Kennedy Center’s chairman, also noted the return and praised the president and first lady Jill Biden, leading to more cheers from the audience, which rose to its feet.
“I’d particularly like to thank the president of the United States and the first lady for continuing this tradition of being here and honoring” the night’s recipients, Rubenstein said.
While Trump’s name was never uttered during the more than four-hour soiree — which will air on CBS on Dec. 22 — his shadow seemed to hang over the black-tie event.
During a faux “Weekend Update” sketch honoring Michaels, “SNL” cast member Michael Che told the crowd, “This is so nerve-wracking.”
“I haven’t been in D.C. since Jan. 6,” he continued, naming the same date that pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol.
“It’s not what you think — I needed a new laptop,” Che quipped.
The comedian also took a slight dig at Biden, cracking that he was nervous to do jokes in front of the commander in chief.
“I keep having to remind myself there’s no way he’s still awake right now,” Che said, which elicited a grin from Biden.
The president was seen in clips filmed at a reception for the honorees ribbing some of the entertainment industry bigwigs. He razzed Michaels, who he dubbed “Mr. Wise Guy,” for “trying out seven guys” to portray him on “Saturday Night Live.”
“If we can’t laugh at ourselves, we’re in trouble,” Biden said. “You make me laugh at myself a lot.”
Among the Hollywood and political faces eyed both on and off stage: Vice President Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — who told ITK she was starstruck by “all of” the performers — Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Scarlett Johansson and Colin Jost, Goldie Hawn, “Schitt’s Creek” star Dan Levy, Billy Porter — who gave an electrifying performance of Midler’s hits onstage — Brandi Carlile, Judy Collins, White House press secretary Jen Psaki, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Smokey Robinson, Amy Poehler, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten Buttigieg, Norah Jones, Pete Davidson, Jimmy Fallon, Martin Short, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Kenan Thompson, Denyce Graves, Harris senior adviser Symone Sanders, Kevin Nealon, Seth Meyers, Beanie Feldstein, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Callista Gingrich, Steve Martin, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, Kelli O’Hara and Stevie Wonder, who closed out the show with “Higher Ground” alongside Andra Day, Ellie Goulding, Brittany Howard and Porter.
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