Obama to join Kennedy Center Honors gala for last time

The 2016 Kennedy Center Honorees, front row, from left, Al Pacino, Mavis Staples, Martha Argerich and James Taylor, back row, from left, Joe Walsh, Don Henley and Timothy Schmit are photographed at the State Department for the Kennedy Center Honors gala dinner, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

WASHINGTON  — 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).”

Obama held an afternoon reception for the honorees in a White House East Room filled with dozens of actors, actresses and musicians. Among those in attendance: Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, Jeff Goldblum, comedian Stephen Colbert, and singers Garth Brooks and Bonnie Raitt.

Obama said the Kennedy Center Honors is one of his favorite events each year. “This year, I’m especially looking forward to seeing how Joe Walsh cleans up. Pretty good.”

The president said the arts are central to American life and help tell the story of who we are. “We need song, and cinema, and paintings and performance to help us challenge our assumptions, to question the way things are and maybe inspire us to think how things might be.”

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.