WASHINGTON — On the mezzanine of the Kennedy Center Opera House on Sunday night, the seats for a star-studded class of honorees were carefully spaced in an effort to disguise the obvious: The president, a traditional guest of the Kennedy Center Honors, was missing.
It was only the fourth time in 40 years that a sitting United States president skipped the gala, which honors the lifetime achievements of artistic trailblazers in music, dance and entertainment — and the first time that the absence was not because of a national crisis or convention. President Trump did not attend to avoid “political distraction,” according to a statement from the White House, but it emboldened honorees to air their angst.
“We happen to have somebody in the White House who doesn’t care about the arts and humanities,” said Norman Lear, the television producer and progressive activist who received the lifetime artistic achievement award. “I think he was smart to stay away and stay out of town — which is something he does on weekends anyway. Nothing new.”
At a State Department dinner for the honorees — Mr. Lear, LL Cool J, Carmen de Lavallade, Gloria Estefan and Lionel Richie — on Saturday night, Julie Andrews, the actress and master of ceremonies, urged attendees to “step away from divisive discourse” for the weekend.
For political figures like Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, the invitation was welcome. Under the glistening chandelier of the Thomas Jefferson Room, an enthralled Ms. Pelosi embraced LL Cool J and inquired at length about distinctions between rap and hip-hop. (“Hip-hop is the culture surrounding it: these earrings, this hat,” he explained. “And the dancing!” she squealed.)
“Art helps us understand each other,” Ms. Pelosi said in an interview. “I truly believe this: Whatever political party, our differences are shed when you engage in the arts.”
But moments later, Ms. Pelosi was seated three tables away from Secretary of…