By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 9:57 PM
The formal dinner that kicks off the annual Kennedy Center Honors could have been a one-of-a-kind jam session.
Perhaps because rock legend Paul McCartney and country legend Merle Haggard were among the honorees, along with Broadway lyricist Jerry Herman, and a record number of great voices and musicians were among the guests.
Let's see: Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Itzhak Perlman, Renee Fleming, Jennifer Hudson, Harolyn Blackwell, Steven Tyler, Jessye Norman, Leon Fleisher, Denyce Graves, Joshua Bell, Terence Blanchard, Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Cook, Norah Jones, Kid Rock, Theodore Bikel, Matthew Morrison, and Gwen Stefani and No Doubt. And those Broadway babes: Carol Channing, Chita Rivera, Christine Baranski, Angela Lansbury, Karen Ziemba and Florence Henderson. And actor Alec Baldwin did warble his way through a concert version of "South Pacific."
Consider what could have happened in the austere formal rooms of the State Department on Saturday night, and for a moment almost did. Robinson offered a meandering toast to McCartney (interrupted by his cellphone ringing twice), saying, "Many times what makes a song great is when it is simple." Then he started, "Na, na, na, na, na, na." And everyone, still seated, including McCartney, joined in on "Hey Jude." For just a few seconds, the potential was there.
However, the Kennedy Center Honors does have a successful social and entertainment pattern, which begins with a dinner hosted by the secretary of state, during which the honorees receive their ribbons. Oprah Winfrey, the wildly successful talk show host, striking in red-and-black Badgley Mischka, and groundbreaking choreographer Bill T. Jones completed this year's class.
The turnout brings together an eclectic mix of cultural personalities, giving the capital city what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the "best weekend in Washington."
And the guest list had other high-wattage names, from their fields: Julia Roberts, Claire Danes, Chris Rock, Laurence Fishburne, Sidney Poitier, Edward Albee, Sam Waterston, Forest Whitaker, John Lithgow, Jacques d'Amboise, Jane Alexander, Bill Irwin, Geoffrey Holder, Tony Roberts and Barbara Walters. Another tradition is a red carpet, where the guests pause for a lineup of photographers. Roberts, in a white-and-gold dinner suit, walked down the carpet with a female escort between her and the cameras.
During the pre-dinner reception, McCartney talked about how he was becoming a regular on the Washington awards circuit. This year he also received the George Gershwin Prize from the Library of Congress, which included a concert at the library and a tribute session at the White House. "I'm getting my own personal parking lot," he joked, then added, "Things come in bundles. I'm honored to be with people you admire. I really admire President Obama and I admire Hillary, too."
Clinton, who had what many believe was a terrible week with the release of diplomatic materials by WikiLeaks, and who had just returned from a trip to Bahrain, managed the receiving line. She patted Perlman on the shoulders and thanked Hudson for "being part of this."
When Clinton took the podium, she talked about the contributions of all the honorees, and added, "I'm writing a cable about it, which I'm sure you'll find soon," and her friendly audience laughed. "To say Oprah influences American culture is like saying Jerry Herman writes a catchy tune or that Bill Jones is kind of flexible," Clinton said. "Her greatest strength is rooted in that heart that she has shared with America for so many years."
With Norman hosting the proceedings, her reading of the tributes, in a throaty voice with theatrical pauses, was almost like a song. Haggard, she said, "had his own stories to tell and his own songs to sing." When Kristofferson offered his toast, he choked up talking about his close friend. His long career, Kristofferson said, had been done "with humor, humility and the grace of a remarkable human being." Norman trilled a bit when she called out "Hello, Jerry," a reference to Herman's landmark musical "Hello, Dolly!"
The political luminaries were also present. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), wearing a snappy black-and-red bow tie, said, "My wife loves Paul McCartney with a capital L, and I love Oprah with a capital O." Nancy Pelosi, the outgoing speaker of the House, who received one of the loudest ovations of the evening, did some table-hopping, which seemed to give other guests permission to visit the stars. James Billington, the librarian of Congress, managed to get Winfrey's ear and discuss the National Book Festival.
Former president Bill Clinton was seated with Ross, Fleming, Walters and McCartney. That table had some serious gridlock, especially when Roberts stopped by.