The Kennedy Center Honors program celebrating cultural achievement opened Sunday with a standing ovation for the late President George H.W. Bush as host Gloria Estefan recounted his attendance at the arts event in previous years.
"Before we begin with a tribute to our first honoree," Estefan said, "I think it's appropriate to recognize the passing of a wonderful man who dedicated his life to service and who graciously attended this event many times during his administration, laughing, applauding, singing along and even shedding a tear from right up there in the presidential box."
Bush died Friday at the age of 94.
For the second straight year, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump declined an invitation to the awards. They returned to Washington before dawn Sunday from the Group of 20 summit in Argentina.
This year's honorees for lifetime achievements in the arts were Cher, composer Philip Glass, country music legend Reba McEntire and jazz icon Wayne Shorter. A special award went to the co-creators of "Hamilton" for their genre-bending musical.
McEntire was introduced by music star Kelly Clarkson, who performed McEntire's hit song "Fancy."
"Sometimes when we meet our heroes, it doesn't always pan out," Clarkson told McEntire, "but my friendship with you became one of the highlights of my life."
Shorter was hailed by the Kennedy Center for a six-decade career that included collaborations with Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana and Joni Mitchell.
Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center's artistic director for jazz, described Shorter's music in celestial terms.
"His sound holds a special place in the galaxy," Moran said. "I can safely say that somewhere in the galaxy right now, a band is playing one of his pieces.
Glass received his tribute from a fellow Kennedy Center Honors recipient: singer-songwriter Paul Simon.
"He can rightfully be described as one of our greatest modern composers," Simon said.
Simon praised Glass for his eclectic body of work, "never settling into one particular style, always developing and exploring."
Comedian Whoopi Goldberg kicked off a tribute to Cher in a flowing sparkly gown that she joked came from the pop music icon's closet.
"She is the true original," Goldberg said. "She not only marched to the beat of her own drum — honey, she is a one-woman band!"
The evening ended with Cyndi Lauper, a longtime friend of Cher's, performing "If I Could Turn Back Time."
The Honors tribute performers are always kept secret from the recipients, and this was no exception. When Lauper strode onstage, Cher yelled from her seat, "You told me you were going to Los Angeles!"
Lauper shrugged and said, "I lied."
This year's event contained a break from tradition by honoring an actual contemporary work of art — the blockbuster musical "Hamilton" — in addition to lifetime achievement awards for late-career artists. Writer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and music director Alex Lacamoire were honored as "trailblazing creators of a transformative work that defies category."
David Rubenstein, the chairman of the board for the Kennedy Center, said after intermission that he often thinks about the values Bush brought to public service.
"I never met a more decent man, a more philanthropic person, a more genuine person," Rubenstein said.
Bush attended the Kennedy Center Honors for most years during his presidency — and even afterward, during his son's presidency — but like other leaders, he was pulled away by major issues that demanded his time. Bush didn't attend in 1989 because he was at a summit in Malta. Jimmy Carter missed the 1979 awards because of the Iran hostage crisis. Bill Clinton was on his way to a conference during the 1994 Kentucky Center awards.
Trump, however, is the first president to miss them twice.
Had he gone to the Kennedy Center, it's unlikely he would have been warmly welcomed by at least some of the honorees, including Cher and Miranda.
Trump and his administration have put unprecedented distance between themselves and the arts and science communities. No arts or humanities medals have been announced or handed out since September 2016, when Barack Obama was president — the longest gap by months since the awards were established in the mid-1980s.