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WASHINGTON — A few months ago, it looked like the annual Kennedy Center Honors program was in danger of being engulfed by the country's current divisive political mood.
2017 Honoree Norman Lear, whose political activism goes back decades, threatened to boycott rather than attend any aspect of the ceremonies that involved President Donald Trump. With other members of the 2017 class of inductees expressing support for Lear's position, a nasty showdown appeared to be looming — until Trump announced in late August that he and First Lady Melania Trump would not attend.
Trump's withdrawal cleared the way for a Kennedy Center Honors ceremony Sunday night that actually managed to skip the political drama and focus entirely on the artists being honored.
Lear, the iconic television producer behind "All in the Family" and a string of other hits, reacted with mock surprise when asked about Trump's absence.
"Really? Wow!" Lear said as he entered the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "I'm expecting a warm, funny, wonderful evening. My guess is that the focus tonight will be on the arts."
Lear's prediction came true, and the 40th annual Kennedy Center Honors event progressed with almost no mention of politics. In addition to Lear, Sunday night's ceremony honored rapper and actor LL Cool J, dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade and musicians Lionel Richie and Gloria Estefan.
LL Cool J, (real name James Todd Smith) called the evening "an amazing, amazing moment" for a hip-hop artist who officials said was the youngest-ever Kennedy Center Honors recipient at 49.
He said there were many deserving rappers and performers from his generation, but he wouldn't go so far as to say that anybody deserved the honor over him.
"I'm humble, but I'm not going to play pseudo-humble," he said before the program. "I'm the one!"
Each honoree received a long, personally tailored onstage tribute sprinkled with surprise guests.
Estefan was greeted with performances of her greatest hits and a solo performance by her daughter, Emily. For LL Cool J, organizers re-created a club onstage with performances by Busta Rhymes and members of The Roots, as well as a testimonial from Queen Latifah.
For Lear, a series of quick changes transformed the stage into the sets from "Good Times," "All in the Family" and "Maude," with tributes from Rob Reiner, Dave Chappelle and Anthony Anderson from the hit show "Black-ish."
De Lavallade received a personal testimonial from 2011 Kennedy Center Honors recipient Meryl Streep, who was her student at Yale University. Richie was honored with a surprise performance of his hit "Hello" by Stevie Wonder, and the evening ended with everyone in attendance standing and dancing to "All Night Long."
In addition to the ceremony Sunday, this year's recipients were honored Saturday at a gala State Department dinner. The program will be televised Dec. 26 on CBS.
The president usually sits in the same box with the honorees and other guests. In the past, most presidents have attended the ceremony, but it's not unprecedented for a president to skip it. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton missed ceremonies during their terms in office, but in all previous cases the first lady attended.
Kennedy Center officials didn't hide their relief when Trump announced that he wouldn't attend this year. Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter and Chairman David M. Rubenstein released a statement saying they were "grateful" to the Trumps for avoiding a conflict that would overshadow the ceremony.
"In choosing not to participate in this year's honor's activities, the administration has graciously signaled its respect for the Kennedy Center and ensures the honors gala remains a deservingly special moment for the honorees," the statement said.