Since Philip Kennicott has won a Pulitzer Prize, and has been writing on architecture and music and culture for the Washington Post since 1999, I’m sure he knows a lot about these subjects. What he doesn’t seem to know anything about is American diplomatic history, but neither he nor his editors let that failing prevent him from writing about the intersection of the arts, politics, and foreign policy as long as the objective was dumping on President Trump.
These biases could not have been clearer in Kennicott’s article yesterday dealing with the President’s recent decision to pass up attending this year’s Kennedy Center Honors ceremony for fear of distracting from the upcoming December awards to “five artists whose talent and ingenuity have enriched and shaped cultural life in America.” As the author noted, Mr. Trump is slated to become only the third chief executive in the ceremony’s 39-year history to sit the event out.
Kennicott rightly observes that this Kennedy Center controversy – which also featured three of the five honorees declaring their refusal to attend a traditional pre-ceremony White House reception – demonstrates that ‘”the rift between the administration and the larger arts world is now total” in large part because major arts figures believe that the President has “embodied a leadership style antithetical to values that have become sacred within most contemporary arts communities, including tolerance, service and egalitarianism.”
The author also makes clear his own view that Mr. Trump is largely to blame for this rupture because he won the White House “based on divisive and racist rhetoric” and has largely continued down this dangerous road – as so many Americans believe.
Although Kennicott can be faulted for overlooking the big racism and sexism and political tolerance problems that the American entertainment community itself has failed to deal with – at least judging by critics in its own ranks – he’s also made some compelling points about the President’s leadership failings so far. In particular, as revealed just this month by his various remarks since the Charlottesville demonstrations and violence (and as I’ve also suggested), he has fallen short when it comes to “sustaining social bonds” and “dramatizing the presidency as service to the nation, not a perk of electoral victory.”
But Kennicott is deeply wrong in assuming that the arts community’s views on these subjects always or even often deserve to be taken seriously, and totally off base in viewing an episode from the days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency as an example of how well artists judge matters of public life.
The author began his article with a description of an evening in November, 1961, when the President and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy hosted a White House performance by renowned Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. In Kennicott’s words:
“For years, Casals had boycotted performing in the United States in protest of the nation’s support for the brutal right-wing Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, but he was heartened by Kennedy’s election campaign and finally accepted an invitation to the White House.” For Kennicott, his appearance before the First Couple and “a glittering crowd of political and cultural leaders” would “become a defining moment in the administration’s embrace of both the arts and the image of elegant cosmopolitanism.”
Certainly the Camelot image fostered so successfully by the Kennedys and their cheerleaders proves that Kennicott is right about the visual message sent by that star-studded evening – about a political world and a cultural world jointly prodding the nation and humanity overall toward greater enlightenment. But Casals’ judgment about Kennedy’s Spain intentions and policy turned out to be as pathetically wrongheaded as Kennicott’s myopic Kennedy worship.
It would have been great had Kennicott mentioned at least in passing Kennedy’s gaping flaws, which ranged from out-of-control womanizing that might have presented national security risks to anti-communist hawkishness that verged on the catastrophically reckless (Google “Missile Crisis, Cuban”). But he could counter that this dimension of the Kennedy record is well known. For his article to stand as journalism, however, or even opinion journalism, Kennicott needed to tell readers at least something about the former President’s dealings with the Spanish fascist leader. Because it would have revealed that Kennedy was a Franco-phile before his truncated term in office, and as President continued the exactly same U.S. policies that Casals considered so unacceptable.
As a Congressman in the 1950s, he supported military aid to Franco. As President, he maintained tight security ties and the only concerns he expressed about the country’s internal affairs focused on the increasing the odds of a smooth transition of power once the then-septuagenarian caudillo passed from the scene. During his years in office, his top foreign policy aides often actually emphasized in meetings with Franco’s representatives how pleased the Kennedy administration was that relations had im. (See here and here for examples.) Indeed, in a May 3, 1963 meeting with the Spanish ambassador, Kennedy himself asked the envoy “to convey his best wishes to” the dictator and emphasized “the interest of the United States in maintaining and promoting close, friendly and cooperative relations with Spain.”
This history is so easy to look up that it’s hard to escape three conclusions. First, like most of the Mainstream Media, Kennicott loathes President Trump fundamentally for an intertwined combination of stylistic and anti-populist prejudices. Second, he reveres Kennedy because, like most of the bipartisan national political and cultural establishment for decades, he’s mistaken glamour and sophistication for decency and accomplishment. And third, as soon as someone clued him in on the Casals performance, he jumped to blurt out his preconceived conclusions – without caring whether they were remotely accurate or not.