A John Lennon Tribute for a Trump World at Kennedy Center GalaBy
Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson recall the Beatle at bipartisan event
On set list: ‘Working Class Hero,’ ‘Help,’ ‘Instant Karma’
John Lennon’s music washed over a bipartisan audience Monday night ranging from Wilbur Ross to Susan Rice to Betsy DeVos to Penny Pritzker at the Kennedy Center’s first gala of the Trump administration.
The hour-and-40-minute program overseen by T Bone Burnett featured the late Beatle’s most iconic lyrics, like “Help, I need somebody." And, “I hope someday you’ll join us, And the world will be as one." Steven Van Zandt performed “Working Class Hero" and “Revolution." But not "Give Peace a Chance." Instead, Carlyle’s David Rubenstein joked his favorite Lennon song is “Give Private Equity a Chance."
Could there be a better or safer artistic legacy for the nation’s performing arts center to honor in these tense times? Or was the choice of Lennon -- who once staged a Bed-In to protest the Vietnam War -- a not-too-subtle rebuke of the belligerent tweeter in the White House?
“Let me address the 500-pound red-and-blue gorilla in the room," said host David Duchovny, acknowledging his own “Hollywood liberal" status. “We are not going to make this a political event."
In fact, he had orders to mellow out the crowd. “Coming together means we check our divisiveness at the door, if not our vapes,” he said.
Not everyone was ready to stand down.
“Half the audience will understand it and half the audience will deny it," said Scott Goldman, executive director of the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles.
Deborah Rutter, president of the center founded to honor the legacy of John F. Kennedy, noted the tragic parallel between Lennon and Kennedy, who were both gunned down in their 40s. As for the theme, it was decided a year ago, she said.
Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said Lennon’s message was timely, “because a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Was the division affecting his work? “Not so much.” Is Trump a Beatles fan? “How could he not be?” he said.
On stage, the audience gave some of the loudest applause to honorees Afa and Aaron Dworkin -- after Afa said she’s a naturalized immigrant. Their Detroit-based Sphinx Organization cultivates young black and Latino orchestral musicians.
“People have asked us if we feel welcome in America,” Aaron Dworkin said. “Welcome? We are America.”
The co-chairs of the gala were Bruce Gates of Altria and James Johnson, who leads Goldman Sachs’s compensation committee. Having once overseen former Goldman President Gary Cohn’s pay, he said Cohn is “way underpaid" in his post in the Trump administration. “It’s a ton of work and he’s on duty 17 hours a day,” he said.
Sandy Weill, former chief executive officer of Citigroup, and his wife, Joan, were honored for their philanthropy in the arts, education and medicine.
“I want a pair of those sunglasses,” Weill said of the round, Lennon-style shades a few guests wore.
“I was the head of the board of the Dakota the night John Lennon was shot," said Commerce Secretary Ross, referring to the Central Park West co-op where they both once lived.
Ross’s wife, Hilary Geary, mentioned a photograph of the Beatles by Harry Benson that hangs outside their bedroom. “It was the night the Beatles heard they were going to be on the Ed Sullivan Show, they were jumping all over the bed,” said Ross, who wore panda tuxedo studs.
The Kennedy Center “is one of the things everyone in Congress can agree on," Ross added. And the Beatles? “That too."
Bluesman Taj Mahal, a favorite of former President Barack Obama, kicked off the music singing the first lines of “Come Together." He soon was joined by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Shawn Colvin and Duchovny, who later sang “Instant Karma" on his own.
Esperaranza Spalding, who performed at an alternative inaugural ball in January, sang “Tomorrow Never Knows." Corinne Bailey Rae delivered “Don’t Let Me Down" about five months after playing at an anti-Trump protest. Judy Collins sang “In My Life" and Amos Lee offered up a soulful “Help.”
Among the about 840 guests were Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and Senator Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.
The gala raised $2 million, some of which will fund a national arts education program. The center has a $220 million annual budget, about $40 million of which comes from the federal government, Chief Financial Officer Lynne Pratt said.