Walter Cronkite emceed it despite a terrible backache, former CBS chairman William S. Paley later told friends he'd wept repeatedly during it, and actor Rex Harrison strolled out on stage in the midst of it lost and bewildered until a crew member rushed in from the wings and nudged him toward the podium. Another year, another spectacular edition of "The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts."

You won't see Harrison's bewilderment (it will be edited out) or Paley's tears or hear Uncle Walter say "Oh, my aching back" (he'd strained his back earlier in the day) on the two-hour CBS version of the show, which airs tonight at 9 on Channel 9, but you will see almost everything else the audience in the Kennedy Center Opera House saw on Dec. 5, when the event was taped, except that the taped version is tighter, brisker and, in fact, a better show all around.

It's all very nice, lustrous and splashy, and even the audience is star-studded -- from Larry Hagman to Brooke Shields to Teddy Kennedy to, of course, our nation's contented couple, Ronald and Nancy -- and yet it's not as good as in years past, and it lacks a satisfying number of big, grand emotional moments. There's a dearth of wowsers.

About the only really sentimental heart-tugger is the finale, when massed troops of the American armed services sing "Thanks for the Memory" to Bob Hope and recall how much his wartime visits entertained and warmed them in years past. Even Hope gets visibly misty on camera, and what seemed appallingly schmaltzy in the hall plays much better scaled down to TV size. But still, it's not as if Hope hasn't been thanked for these memories before.

On the other hand, breathes there a soul who would really begrudge the old boy the honor?

"The Kennedy Center Honors" remains among the few televised awards ceremonies with some dignity and stature to them. The question now is whether the dignity and stature are standing in the way of putting on a really big show and honoring all the people who deserve honoring.

Hope is, after all, the only real television star honored in the eight years of the Kennedy Center event, and his television work is barely mentioned in the tribute, which concentrates instead on the war shows and his hilarious movies. This year's other honorees are singer-actress Irene Dunne (who was kept from the ceremony by a sudden illness), Broadway composing team Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe ("My Fair Lady"), opera star Beverly Sills and offbeat choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Those in the arts world applaud the center's choice of Cunningham, whose work was and is avant-garde, because it means a maverick is getting an overdue Establishment bravo. One of his kooky ballets is excerpted, however, and it proves at best baffling. While Cunningham may deserve the honor, the choice makes it all the more irksome that the center still has not seen fit to cite such American television giants as Lucille Ball, Milton Berle or Jackie Gleason in all its years of doling out the accolades.

It would be my contention that Uncle Miltie in his baggy pants has contributed at least as much to American culture as has Merce Cunningham in his tights. And Berle always got his laughs on purpose. Ball performed in movies as well as TV, and Gleason is a multitalented giant whose work is as enviable and lasting as Chaplin's or Keaton's.

But each year the nominating ballots for the Honors go out mainly to figures in classical music, ballet, theater and film. These people are not likely to nominate television performers because they're just not hoity-toity enough. A center source does say, however, that Carol Burnett "will probably get it in time," perhaps because she shows up every year to pay tribute to someone else. This year it's Sills.

Certainly there are too many awards shows on TV that already shower so-so stars with empty huzzahs. But "The Kennedy Center Honors" is, after all, not just a Washington event but a television event. Surely it would be an act of graciousness and justice if, say, Lucy were to be included in next year's batch of honorees.

Highlights of this year's show include opera star Frederica von Stade's sung tribute (of Jerome Kern tunes) to Dunne. An 8-year-old classical pianist, Leah Yoon, is an impressive charmer, though she picked a dull piece to play; as it happens, the plucky little tyke ended up on the cutting room floor. Chevy Chase, who rambled during his tribute to Hope, has been edited into a more concise and funnier presentation. Kirk Douglas does a particularly professional job in another Hope tribute, whereas Harrison and Louis Jourdan come across as sloppily grandiose in their paeans to Lerner and Loewe.

Disappointments? Yes. One might have thought Julie Andrews, the first "Fair Lady," would have shown up for the Lerner-Loewe salute, but she didn't. And for remarks about Hope's art, it would have been wonderful for Woody Allen to make one of his very rare TV appearances, since he is an avowed Hope buff.

George Stevens Jr. and Nick Vanoff do a magnificent job of producing the show each year, and Don Mischer's TV direction is somehow both official and intimate. It is a welcome oasis of class and style. But this year's program is a tad flat, and it suggests the whole structure of honor-giving might be looked into so that the honor roll better reflects the talents America really loves best.