President Reagan last night presented the Medal of Freedom to Roger L. Stevens, retiring chairman of the board of trustees of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
"A quarter of the time I have big hits; a quarter of the time artistic successes; a quarter of the time the critics were crazy; and a quarter of the time I was crazy. It figures out pretty well that way," Reagan quoted Stevens as saying.
When Reagan had finished, and had handed Stevens the medal, Stevens said, "Well."
A man of few words, usually mumbled -- as his friends like to point out -- Stevens eventually elaborated with equally characteristic humility.
"I'm deeply honored. It sort of boggles the mind. I feel most humble," he said looking at the medal, the highest honor a civilian can receive. "Besides, it's so beautiful. I've never seen anything quite like it."
At times it sounded as if the 250 political, artistic, social and diplomatic guests had never seen anyone quite like Stevens.
All over the Four Seasons Hotel ballroom people like choreographer Agnes De Mille, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, playwright Arthur Kopit, composer Gian Carlo Menotti and Stevens' coproducer Robert Whitehead were popping up, called upon by emcee George Stevens Jr. to praise the 77-year-old Stevens for almost singlehandedly transforming Washington from a provincial desert into a cultural oasis.
President Kennedy named him chairman of the National Cultural Center in 1961. It fell to Stevens to raise donations to build the center.
"We Republicans were especially happy to see Roger take on the assignment," Reagan said in his tribute. "It cut into the time he had been using to raise money for the Democrats."
Historian Daniel J. Boorstin, former librarian of Congress, added to the portrait being painted by calling Stevens "unique among our public citizens, for he has served our capital city by transcending it. In a city of too many words, he has been a shaper of acts, a sponsor of music, an opener of dramatic vistas ... Roger will speak to future generations in the voices of our nation's great actors and actresses, the sounds of music and the sights of dance ..."
John Kennedy had that in mind when he said he was "certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities we too will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit."
"I believe President Kennedy would have said his greatest gift to America was Roger Stevens," said Ted Kennedy, a member of the center's board of trustees, which hosted last night's dinner.
Giving Stevens a musical tribute was violinist Isaac Stern, who said, "Roger was one of the very first to understand the essence of support was to give artists the right to fail, was to give them the possibility to try. It was a revolutionary idea."
At dinner, Stevens shared a table with Nancy Reagan, actor Rex Harrison, dinner cochair and trustee Marion Jorgensen, longtime center supporters Oatsie Charles and Jean Kennedy Smith, trustee Lew Wasserman and White House chief of staff Howard Baker.
For Baker, the evening held a different perspective from the one he had after an early-morning call telling him that President Reagan had been ill during the night.
"My wife was in the hospital in Florida, my mother was sick in Nashville, the president was upstairs throwing up and my dog had to go to the vet," Baker said before the party got underway. "It's a lot funnier now than it was at 6:30 this morning."
Art Buchwald said he was grateful to Stevens not only for putting Washington on the cultural map, but for building "someplace to get out of the cold. If it weren't for Roger, we'd be watching the National Symphony on the Mall."
All the assembled artistic talent must have put ideas into the head of Mayor Marion Barry. He said he hadn't yet mentioned it to Stevens, who produced more than 200 plays in addition to making a fortune in real estate, but "One of my fantasies some day is to get somebody to write a part for me in a play. I can't sing and I can't dance, but I think I can speak some dramatic part. Part of my job now is not acting but giving impressions."
The mayor had no timetable for his theatrical career and said he was undecided about seeking reelection to a fourth term but would make up his mind in another year.
Martin Feinstein, who was the center's executive director of performing arts for eight years, offered a little-known glimpse of Stevens. The two met regularly on Wednesdays and, Feinstein said, it wasn't uncommon for him to tell Stevens they couldn't meet the center's payroll that week.
"So he'd come up with $40,000 of his own money," Feinstein said.
At the end of the evening, after seeing the Reagans off, Stevens and his wife Christine worked their way through an admiring crowd eager to see up close the prestigious Medal of Freedom, which Stevens was carrying in its box. He reluctantly handed it to one man.
"Just don't lose it," Stevens warned.