It was a night of couples at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner Saturday, a night of moments odd and eerie.

Here's Dan Glickman, secretary of agriculture, bumping into Kim Goldman, sister of the man for whose death O.J. Simpson was found responsible. Their shoulders touch, their eyes meet, but there is not the faintest glimmer of recognition, and they slide past one another, each looking for others of his or her own brand of celebrity.

Here's "Dr. Ruth" Westheimer, the diminutive sex adviser, and Tom Selleck, the towering hunk. She spies the TV star and holds her arms up like a toddler in a crib reaching for a lift.

"I'm not going to hug you," Selleck protests, staring down to her level and making the height calculation. "I'd get arrested unless I pick you up."

Here's the actress Kim Basinger, making her way past the Secret Service, bounding onto the dais at the Washington Hilton, embracing and kissing the vice president.

Down in the audience, two White House staffers groan over the spectacle: "I can't believe they let her up there," one says.

"The president would do that, but Gore?!" replies the other.

And here's the couple of the evening, the television actress Ellen DeGeneres and her lover, the young movie actress Anne Heche, getting up from dinner to parade over -- arms entwined -- to the penned-in photographers.

For reasons no one quite comprehends, DeGeneres and Heche chose as their coming-out party this Washington ritual, this annual gathering of the cloistered capital news hacks -- improbably decked out in tuxes and gowns -- and the president, his Cabinet and a few dozen members of Congress -- improbably mixing with the impudent cynics they so desperately need and resent. But most bizarre of all, a smattering of Hollywood types have -- talk about improbable! -- flown a fleet of private jets to National Airport so they can flaunt their miniskirts in a floor-length town, so they can be seen by scribes who have never even heard of their TV sitcoms, perhaps so they can pretend to be part of some magnificent national power elite.

Or maybe it's just that they'll do anything for publicity.

DeGeneres, who has caused a stir with the announcement that both she and her television character are homosexual, made quite the show of strolling about the evening's pre- and post-dinner parties in various states of attachment to Heche. Heche, for her part, had let it be known through publicists last week that this was her first lesbian relationship.

The couple had been invited by Vanity Fair magazine, at whose Hollywood bash last month DeGeneres and Heche got serious. But when they arrived at the magazine's party Saturday night, the two women were mobbed. They sought refuge down the hall at the Dallas Morning News party, where they grabbed a couple of drinks and a bit of quiet.

Until, that is, a burly photographer burst into the room, shoved a lithe young correspondent out of the way and shouted, "She's rubbing her back!" as he gave his camera's motor drive a grueling road test.

DeGeneres and Heche moved on. The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch party was nearly empty, a momentary respite. By now, a helpful publicist had arrived to usher the couple from party to party that the news organizations arranged in a row. But as they passed the next room, the publicist said only, "Keep going, next doorway," guiding the women right past the National Review party. Too bad: William F. Buckley Jr., Haley Barbour and William Kristol, all inside talking politics, could have used the relief.

The pre-parties had a definite pecking order. The hot spot was Vanity Fair, where Stanley Crouch held forth on the meaninglessness of American celebrity culture, starlets giggled about the zaftig Washington women, and knowing New Yorkers worried that the capital's restaurants are so lacking that Vanity Fair had to fly its delectables from the Apple. Over at U.S. News, editor James Fallows and Massachusetts Gov. William Weld discussed the environment amid a wonkish crowd. Poor USA Today rented one of the big rooms, but a clot of just 17 people stood by the hors d'ouevres, and there wasn't a celeb in sight.

Inside the Hilton ballroom, that vast low space that looks like a set left over from a 1962 Marine World pavilion, the three magnets were Table 80, where John Kennedy Jr. and his reclusive wife, Carolyn, dined with his George magazine editors; Table 119, where DeGeneres and Heche, TV's George Clooney and Bianca Jagger supped with Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter; and Table 153, where TV's Mr. Bombastic, John McLaughlin, held court, introducing his special guest, Robert De Niro, to the likes of Sen. John Glenn and former senator Eugene McCarthy.

"Some of the same things that happen to astronauts in space are what happen to older people, immunologically and physically," Glenn explained.

"Really?" De Niro said, and a clot of female admirers swooned at the very syllables. This was the only place in the hall where the working press was whipping out cameras and asking for autographs.

After slices of duck breast, filet mignon and salmon, the entertainment portion of the evening began. The comedian Rosie O'Donnell, who had agreed to perform at the dinner in January, bailed out of the gig just four weeks ago, leaving association president Terence Hunt of the Associated Press more than a bit peeved.

"It's personal and something that involves other people, and it's a private and personal thing," O'Donnell's spokesman, Lois Smith, had said by way of clarification.

Luckily, the comedian William J. Clinton was on hand and in fine form, despite having to lean on crutches. Still stunned by Bob Dole's decision to lend House Speaker Newt Gingrich $300,000 to pay his ethics violation fine, Clinton said, "You know, if I'd known Bob Dole was that generous, I'd have invited him over for coffee."

The president did a passable Barbara Walters imitation, imagining an interview between the ABC broadcaster and George Washington: "Walters asks the Father of Our Country, If you could chop down a twee, any twee at awll, what kind of a twee would it be?' "

But Clinton brought down the house with the most self-deprecating line of the night, delivered with Borscht Belt timing:

"The bad news is: Our only child is going to college. The good news is: Opens up another bedroom."

After that, the hired replacement for O'Donnell, a comic and CBS late-night talk show host named Jon Stewart, could hardly be expected to finish first. He didn't come close.

Apparently unfamiliar with Washington regulars, Stewart attempted imitations of several senators, and managed to flub even his Ted Kennedy. "I like Senator Kennedy," Stewart said. "But he has an enormous head. It doesn't even look like a head. It looks like a container for a head."

There were a couple of yuks about the grueling confirmation process, which Stewart defined as "weeding out the truly qualified to get to the truly available."

And the comedian was more prescient than he could have realized when he joked that DeGeneres' coming out is "an elaborate ruse to keep Larry King from hitting on her."

Because not an hour later, at the tough-to-crash Vanity Fair after-party at the Russian Trade Mission, there was the suspendered one himself, leaning into DeGeneres, introducing a friend: "This is Ellen DeGeneres," King said, "and this is the girlfriend."

Mr. Tact did not seem to offend Heche, who was refreshingly frank. Asked whether her new movie, "Volcano," is any good, she replied cheerfully, "No."

Both inside the Hilton and at the Vanity Fair bash, not one in 10 partygoers was an actual White House correspondent. The dinner has grown far beyond that. Once upon a time it was a place where actual reporters brought sources to show gratitude for leaks and returned phone calls. Then came Michael Kelly, now editor of the New Republic but in 1987 a political writer at the Baltimore Sun. Eager to impress his bosses, Kelly invited not the usual deputy undersecretary or White House lawyer, but the comely Fawn Hall, Oliver North's former secretary, then embroiled in the Iran-contra investigation.

"I'm sorry to say it's true," Kelly admits. "It was my contribution, as Bill Bennett would say, to the coarsening of the culture."

Hall might have been a one-shot dose of celebrity, but Kelly came back the next year with Donna Rice, the Miami model who had famously sat atop Gary Hart's lap on a yacht, ending his presidential aspirations.

"I don't do that anymore," a more mature Kelly says now. "And I'd like to apologize to all the high-minded people in the country." This year, Kelly's guest was Eugene McCarthy.

But the genie is long since out of the bottle, and on this night, Fred, Kim and Patti Goldman, guests of People magazine, worked the room as one earnest stranger after another approached to talk about a relative or friend lost to murder.

Later the Goldmans spent some time with George Clooney on the terrace of the Russian mission. "{Johnnie} Cochran wants me to appear on his TV show," Fred Goldman said.

"Twice he asked us," his wife, Patti, added.

Clooney was sympathetic. "I don't like Cochran," he offered.

Just beyond the Goldmans and Clooney, three White House reporters and two White House staffers stood mute. Each of them leaned in to capture every word of the Hollywood exchange. CAPTION: The Goldmans, from left, Kim, Fred and Patti, with George Clooney at the Vanity Fair party. CAPTION: Bianca Jagger and Tom Selleck chat at Vanity Fair's after-dinner party at the Russian Trade Mission. CAPTION: Being social: President Clinton talks with actresses Ellen DeGeneres, right, and girlfriend Anne Heche at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. CAPTION: Meeting of marrieds: At Newsweek's bash, Alan Greenspan, left, Andrea Mitchell, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger.