U.S. President Joe Biden celebrated artists — including Canada’s Joni Mitchell and Lorne Michaels — on Sunday at the Kennedy Center Honors, bringing back presidential participation in the annual ceremony skipped by Republican Donald Trump.
Motown founder Berry Gordy and singers Bette Midler and Justino Díaz rounded out the group of artists selected by the Kennedy Center for top honours this year at a show that had been upended by politics and the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden, a Democrat who took over from Trump in January, held a black-tie ceremony for the five honourees earlier in the evening, the sort of glamorous celebration that has become rare at a White House that has eschewed large gatherings in the COVID-19 era.
Trump did not hold such a reception during his four years in office and did not attend the show at the Kennedy Center itself.
“It is quite nice, very nice, to see the presidential box once again” being occupied, comedian David Letterman said at the beginning of the show at the Kennedy Center, sparking a standing ovation from the mask-wearing crowd.
Biden, his wife, Jill, Vice-President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, all attended the ceremony.
The awards recognize a lifetime of achievement in the performing arts.
Midler, a singer and actress, has received Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Golden Globe awards for a career spanning decades, with album sales exceeding 30 million around the world.
Midler dished to reporters about the reception on her way into the Kennedy Center. “It was divine at the White House,” she said. “Very clean. Lovely. Great staff. Food was excellent. Wine was a little sweet.”
Singer-songwriter Mitchell, who was born in Alberta and raised in Saskatchewan, is known for songs such as Both Sides, Now and Big Yellow Taxi. She is a multi-Grammy recipient and an inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The show opened up honouring her with performances by Norah Jones and Brandi Carlile.
‘You make me laugh at myself,’ says Biden
Toronto-born Michaels is the creator and executive producer of the long-running NBC sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live.
“If you can’t laugh at yourself, we’re in real trouble, and you make me laugh at myself a lot,” Biden said during his remarks at the White House, referring to Michaels, noting the show has used seven comics to play him over the years.
Comedy and other art forms and cultural exports help the United States lead by the power of its example worldwide, the president said.
“Throughout my career, I’ve met nearly every world leader,” he said. “And I’ll tell you, not everyone sees satire that way. You’d all be in jail.”
Diaz, a bass-baritone opera singer from Puerto Rico, has performed with opera companies around the world.
Gordy, a songwriter and record producer from Detroit, founded the Motown record label that became synonymous with a jazz- and blues-influenced musical sound popularized by Black artists including Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie, whose careers he helped shape. Gordy is also a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
“I think I’m in a dream … and it’s a wonderful dream,” Gordy told reporters.
The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast on the CBS television network on Dec. 22.