Trump Awards the First Arts and Humanities Medals of His Presidency – The New York Times


WASHINGTON — In honoring the actor Jon Voight, an outspoken Trump supporter, with the National Medal of the Arts on Thursday, President Trump described him as “somebody I happen to really like.”

In introducing the author James Patterson as a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, Mr. Trump called him “another friend of mine,” although he failed to mention that Mr. Patterson was also a dues-paying member of his Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla.

The Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank whose alumni have gone on to serve in the Trump administration, also received a humanities award.

And in his remarks about Sharon Percy Rockefeller, a longtime advocate for public broadcasting and the former president and chief executive of WETA in the Washington area, who was also chosen as an arts medal recipient, Mr. Trump joked that “maybe I’ll start getting good publicity” from shows like “PBS NewsHour” and “Washington Week.”

“They tend to be on the other side of things, a little bit,” he added. “I think now I have a better chance.”

Throughout a brief and relatively sedate ceremony in the East Room presenting medals celebrating the arts and humanities for the first time since he assumed office, the president made it clear that his own relationship to the artists or patrons of the arts, and their support for him, were front of mind as much as their collective contributions to society.

The pattern was a familiar one. In the past, Mr. Trump has also used the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to celebrate friends and business partners like Tiger Woods.

Other recipients on Thursday like the chef Patrick J. O’Connell; Teresa Lozano Long, a philanthropist based in Austin, Texas; and the bluegrass musician and singer Alison Krauss had no clear links to the president.

But since the 1980s, when the United States began recognizing its greatest artists with the national medals, recipients have always been handpicked by the president, with input from members of the National Council on the Arts, and reflected their tastes if not their political affiliations.

Past recipients have included Georgia O’Keeffe, Frank Capra and Ella Fitzgerald. President Barack Obama’s list of recipients in 2016 included Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records; the composer Philip Glass; the authors Sandra Cisneros and Ron Chernow; the poet Louise Glück; and the chef José Andrés.

Mr. Trump has presided over the longest gap in history during which none of the medals were given out, at all, a drought that came as Mr. Trump released budgets that sought to eliminate two agencies that support the arts, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In past years, presidents typically selected about a dozen recipients for each medal. Last week, the White House announced that Mr. Trump had chosen just eight recipients in total for both awards.

Arts advocates said they were simply happy to see any artist, or patron of the arts, honored at the White House, even if there were fewer of them and the crowd lacked diversity.

“Every president picks their own list of people, and we are just happy to see the arts be honored,” said Robert L. Lynch, the president of Americans for the Arts, a national lobbying group. “The medal is not about Trump. The medal is about America, and about our government honoring artists and humanists as something that is important to our country.”

But other members of the creative community were less open-minded about what it meant to receive a medal celebrating the arts from Mr. Trump.

“There’s no question that the deficit in empathy and humanity that the president displays would make getting an award from him an awkward predicament,” said Leon Botstein, a conductor and the president of Bard College. “One wants the nation to honor its artists, but on the other hand it’s an embarrassment given the values he stands for.”

In receiving her award, Ms. Krauss, who has won more Grammy Awards than any other female musician, seemed to embody the tension. She appeared to be polite to Mr. Trump, but also at times seemed to avoid his gaze. “Look how shy she is,” Mr. Trump said.

In the past, nominations came in from the public and from members of the National Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Those recommendations were passed onto the president, who would make the final decision. The process was always somewhat political, with presidents ultimately choosing recipients who fit their own agendas.

A spokeswoman for the National Endowment for the Arts said that the process this year was run according to the federal regulations that guide that process. But she would not say whether any of Mr. Trump’s selections were from the list of people who had been recommended to him.

A White House spokesman added that the staff secretary had also solicited nominees from cabinet officials and senior White House staff members.

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