The Scrapbook resolutely refuses to take the Kennedy Center Honors seriously, and this year’s carefully balanced, politically vetted selection of lifetime achievers in the performing arts—Dustin Hoffman, Led Zeppelin, Buddy Guy, Natalia Makarova, David Letterman—prompts us to change our mind not one whit. Discerning readers will note that there is the requisite Hollywood figure (Hoffman), African American (Guy), TV personality (Letterman), and representative of High Art (Makarova). We’re not quite sure where Led Zeppelin fits in here, but since last year’s list featured Neil Diamond, and Sir Paul McCartney made the cut the year before, we have an idea where this is going.
Those with an eye for ethnic politics, however, will note that, in the dozen years since Michael Kaiser has been president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, only two people with a recognizably Hispanic surname (Chita Rivera, Plácido Domingo) have been honored.
This unremarkable statistical anom-aly seems to have drawn the attention of Felix Sanchez, Esq., a Texas-born lawyer and former aide to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen who has done well for himself in Washington as a PR man and lobbyist for the gas and methanol industries. He is also chairman of an organization called the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts (NHFA), a brainchild of Sanchez and a handful of celebrities (Esai Morales, Sonia Braga, Jimmy Smits, etc.) which, as it says on its website, “has concentrated on increasing access to Hispanic artists and professionals while fostering the emergence of new Hispanic talent.”
Anybody who has spent time observing lawyers and flacks who profit by their ethnic identity will recognize the loaded character of the word access. Accordingly, Sanchez showered Kaiser with emails and calls to demand to know why there weren’t more Hispanic surnames among the honorees. No doubt to his regret, Kaiser accepted one of the calls—and in a brief, heated dialogue in which Sanchez suggested to Kaiser that he is a racist, Kaiser told Sanchez to go “f— yourself.”
When The Scrapbook first read about this unhappy encounter in the pages of the Washington Post, we were inclined to cheer Kaiser on: The world contains too many self-appointed spokes-men for all manner of human categories making arrogant public demands on people (like Michael Kaiser) who have worked conscientiously to enhance the cultural life of the nation.
But then, as citizens of Barack Obama’s Washington, we realized that our pleasure would be short-lived. And sure enough, Kaiser soon dispatched a message to Sanchez in which he apologized for the language he employed “during our telephone call. It was an unfortunate choice of words and I deeply regret using them in frustration.” Then came the inevitable abject declaration: “Much of my career has been spent working with artists of color. I have been passionate about presenting excellence and diversity in artistic and educational programming, and Latino arts and programs have enjoyed a dynamic presence.”
Translation: A lobbying organization, headed by a professional influence peddler, has succeeded in guaranteeing that next year’s Kennedy Center Honors list will contain at least one Hispanic surname, whose honor will be instantly ascribed to Felix Sanchez’s bumptious strong-arm tactics, and hence diminished.
It goes without saying that Sanchez was singularly ungracious in his response to Kaiser: “While the Kaiser apology was a few Hail Mary’s [sic] short of a full mea culpa, it’s important to move past the issue of civility and on to a discussion of the structural reforms [the NHFA and an allied group] need to see happen at the Kennedy Center Honors.” But we must also sadly conclude that Kaiser, having surrendered to the likes of Sanchez, probably deserves whatever humiliation the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts has in mind.
All of which reminds The Scrapbook of the Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP which, in 1985, vigorously objected to the depiction of black men in Steven Spielberg’s production of The Color Purple. A few months later, that same chapter excoriated the Academy Awards when The Color Purple won no Oscars.