The smell of Celebrity hung in the air like a strong and slightly oppressive perfume. That happens whenever New York fashionistas descend on Washington trying hard to look interested in the locals, tongue firmly in chic. Descartes had it wrong: I'm famous, therefore I am.

Last night's occasion was the party hosted by Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour in honor of photographer Annie Leibovitz. The festivities began at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where "Women," an exhibit of the photographer's portraits, opens today. The second half of the soiree took place in the East Room of the White House, where President Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Madeleine Albright said extremely nice things about women in general and Leibovitz in particular.

"We are celebrating Annie and her show and her photographs," said the first lady, who called the exhibit "spectacular." The two go way back--Leibovitz photographed Clinton for Vogue, and accompanied her on a tour of Africa. "A lot of people were really worried because she was a celebrity and a star," Clinton told the standing-room crowd of 500. Need she say that within mere hours the shooter had won everyone over with her warmth and professionalism? Nay.

The guest list included Albright, writer Susan Sontag, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, The Washington Post's Katharine Graham and rocker Patti Smith--all of whom could stand next to their portraits for one of those surreal life-imitates-art moments.

Albright was pleased. "I like it," she said, smiling. "I usually don't like pictures of myself, but Annie was great. What worked on this is that we were talking. It's three-dimensional instead of two-dimensional."

"I've lost weight since that picture was done," Kennedy blurted out. Then the three-star Army general laughed at herself. "Women!"

Famous names arrived to see the famous faces: fashion designers Narciso Rodriguez and Barry Kieselstein-Cord; Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, actor Robert Duvall and model Lauren Hutton.

The rest of the crowd . . . well, they looked as if they were about to be Somebodies any second now.

Five unassuming exceptions were the female coal miners from Alabama, who paid their way to Washington for the opening and received an ovation as they stood near their group portrait. "I had no idea of what it would look like," said Jean McCrary, a 62-year-old miner who retired in August. Leibovitz, she said, understood them--which may be part of her genius as a photographer.

The guest of honor was immediately recognizable: careless blond hair flying every which way, glasses, somber black coat befitting a Calvinist (John, not Klein). Leibovitz is now a bigger celebrity than most of her subjects and was mobbed from the minute she entered the Corcoran reception. "I'm already inundated!" she said to a reporter before being swept away by admirers. "I'll be around."

Wintour, by contrast, wore a black short-sleeve top, striped pastel sequined skirt and black mules. She looked very soigne, but then the great thing about being the editor of Vogue is that you can wear anything and people assume you're drop-dead chic.

To the delight of some and the dismay of others, Wintour was not accompanied by her billionaire beau, J. Shelby Bryan. The lovebirds unceremoniously dumped their respective spouses earlier this year to pursue True Love, which caused a few eyebrows to arch.

Bryan is a big-money contributor to the Democratic National Committee and close to both the president and first lady. So is his soon-to-be-ex, Katherine, who reportedly received a condolence call from Clinton when news of the split spilled out.

The British-born Wintour has been a regular on the shuttle to Washington since co-hosting a 1996 breast cancer benefit here honoring Princess Diana. She became thisclose with some of Washington biggest names, who are now trying to gracefully ignore that nasty divorce business.

One of those big names is Hillary Clinton, who was the subject of a cover story in last December's Vogue, shot by . . . oh, never mind.

So it was really no surprise when the White House was the setting for a reception honoring Leibovitz last night--even though reporters were slightly taken aback that a for-profit entity like Vogue had landed Washington's prime real estate for a party venue.

"I think we do a variety of events with people," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, answering queries at yesterday's news briefing. "Well, we think it's a cause that celebrates important work, whether it be an artist's photographs or a musician's songs. If we believe it's something that we can get behind, we're happy to do it."

The happiest person of all may have been Leibovitz.

"There is no higher honor than to be in this house tonight with my family and friends," she said. "It is truly a mitzvah for my parents." Then she turned to the first lady. "Mrs. Clinton, may I use this occasion to say I'm one of the many women in New York who are voting for you."

Then Albright came onstage and said nice things about the show. She went on to say nice things about President Clinton, who said even more nice things about women and photographers.

One guest stared at her watch. Enough, already: She wanted to catch the 9:30 shuttle back to New York. The White House was great, she said in that distracted, underwhelmed-by-fame kind of way. She leaned back with a tiny sigh.

Would've been a great picture.

Staff writer Annie Groer contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Annie Leibovitz at last night's party with the president and Anna Wintour.