(Politics breeds strange box fellows: flanking the Presidential Box at the Kennedy Center at last night’s Kennedy Center Awards: from left, Twyla Tharp, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, Barbra Streisand, Morgan Freeman, George Jones, The First Lady, President Bush.)

Last night the Kennedy Center Awards were conferred at the usual black tie ceremony and taped for later broadcast — in this case on 30 December.

These awards, which are rarely far from the adjective “distinguished,” were created in 1971 as a fundraising gimmick by TV packagers George Stevens Jr., (who is still the producer) and his partner Nick Vanoff.

The Kennedy Center’s website, while not short on hyperbole, is direct about the linkage:

Since their inception in 1978, the Kennedy Center Honors have redefined America’s perception of its artistic legacy and reinvented the way this nation rewards its artists. The Honors have been compared to a knighthood in Britain, or the French Legion of Honor–the quintessential reward for a lifetime’s endeavor. At the same time, the annual addition of new names to the roster of Honors recipients charts the international standard of excellence set by America’s artists, as well as the aesthetic inspiration provided by artists of other nations who have achieved prominence on these shores.

The annual Honors gala is an evening without categories, without disappointments, and without competition. And the Honors telecast, aired during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, is a perennial Emmy nominee. It serves for millions of American arts lovers as the year’s crowning event, paying tribute to our nation’s preeminent artists with performances by the great stars of today who have followed in their footsteps.

The Honors gala is the Kennedy Center’s most important annual fundraising event, supporting its performing arts, education, and outreach programs.

This year’s laureates include

  • Barbra Streisand
  • George Jones
  • Morgan Freeman
  • Twyla Tharp
  • Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who
Far be it from me to be churlish —must less during the holiday season— but “Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who”?    (And, on the basis of this logic, why did last year’s award not go to “Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys”?  Only the most unreflective fan would claim that Mr. Daltry’s contribution to the originality of The Who was on an equal footing with Mr. Townshend’s.) (The relative seriousness of their contributions can be seen in David Segal’s interesting outtake interview transcripts published in the Washington Post.

I understand that John Entwhistle and Keith Moon, the supergroup’s other members, have passed on to an eternal (and unpackaged) reward.  And I am second to no man in my enthusiasm for the band  (OK, perhaps to a few men; my enthusiasm is great but not unbounded).  And my cap is off to Messrs. Daltry and Townshend for their very considerable philanthropic accomplishments.  Nor am I unaware that the Queen has invested Mr. Daltrey —but not his colleague— as Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

But I’m still not exactly sure how or why The Who have the necessary standing for this Kennedy Center Award.  Purists may carp that, after having to choose five living individuals every year for the last thirty-one years, the pool of available greatness has necessarily begun to thin.  In fact, I think the consistent caliber of the Awardees has been impressive.

In a world where Odetta died without having received a Kennedy Center Award, and where Etta James, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, John Hiatt, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (singularly or on his own) and so many others are still, thankfully, very much with us, but still unrecognized by a Kennedy Center Award, I find it hard to believe —and a little hard to take— that The Who, however worthy, stands higher in this particular order of precedence.