With 22 years of bestowing and fawning and toasting under its cummerbund, the Kennedy Center Honors weekend has become much the well-oiled machine. CBS and advertisers front the bill for the big show; the Kennedy Center flexes its own fund-raising biceps most of the weekend; Washington politely swoons; the State Department and White House pony up for some extra swank. Put simply: We know how to do this.

Still, it's impossible not to fall for the transformative power all over again, every first weekend in December. It's when drab gray gets a needed dose of celeb shimmer and artistic awe; when a big, boring government raises a glass toward that which was--and still is--beautiful.

And beauty (this is key) is obliged to show up and be revered.

Yesterday evening in the tree-bedecked (there are six of them) East Room of the White House, President and Mrs. Clinton, along with 400 guests, saluted this year's honorees, chosen for their contributions to the performing arts in America.

Clinton, recalling a recent visit to the Parthenon in Greece, wondered what our civilization's monuments would be. The five remarkable artists and creators, he said, are giving us new ways to understand and to experience the world and so are leaving their own enduring monuments.

In declaring Sean Connery an honorary American citizen, Clinton said, "We couldn't have won the Cold War without you."

Watch as the State Department building--from the outside an impressive chunk of modern blah, well fortressed, the streets around it typically abandoned on a Saturday night--comes alive with the annual, glamorous presentation of the Kennedy Center Honors medals.

This year's honorees--pop musician Stevie Wonder; actors Sean Connery and Jason Robards; pianist-funnyman Victor Borge; and dancer-choreographer Judith Jamison--were given their actual rainbow-ribboned medals (which still oddly resemble three employee nametags linked together, but nicer) and appropriately toasted at an elegant dinner on the State Department's top floor.

Everyone should get a chance to see this evening play out, although almost no one gets to. Only 157 people are invited to the dinner (most, but not all, bring a guest), and the list is limited to previous honorees, the center's board members and artistic committee members, a few choice lawmakers, some Kennedys (the senator, his wife and Jean Kennedy Smith) and certain perennial personalities. This is where an elite swath of Washington gets its first inhalation of as much star power as it can stand in one evening. You'd assume the gawking is more directed toward the Hollywood end of the room, but often the fascination is mutual. (Even the furnishings up here are a trip for show biz types, from the original Treaty of Paris to an antique desk that actor Patrick Stewart's date, Wendy Neuss, thinks would be perfect in a certain room of her own.)

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in her official welcome to dinner guests, noted that she especially looked forward to the evening--"because my week started in Seattle" (referencing the shocking realization that the masses aren't entirely on board with global free trade).

From the less riotous vantage point of the receiving line, Albright had said she was tempted to turn into an autograph hound. Mentioning Connery, she told the audience that perhaps the suave Scottish actor could be cast "in the role I really want to see him in--as a European foreign minister who is eager to spend time with the American secretary of state."

She wasn't alone. The women all wanted a gander at Connery. The men had more direct fantasies: They want to be James Bond. It helped that the crowd was dressed and situated in one of the few buildings left to have Cold War fantasies, and that 007 was seated at a table with Secretary of Defense William Cohen.

Dinner Is Served

Before the glitterati arrived Saturday night, the security guards looked glum; then the striking figure of renowned dancer and honoree Jamison approached, not just walking down the carpet but twirling, and fanning her red shawl like a banner, playfully referring to herself as "Wonder Woman."

As guests lined up on the eighth floor, Catherine Zeta-Jones (the weekend's sole schwing factor) temporarily detached herself from actor Michael Douglas to bounce over and give Connery--her co-star in the thriller "Entrapment"--a big haven't-seen-you-since-the-wrap-party hug. Connery, cradling a nice clinky-drinky in one hand and Zeta-Jones in the other, was in the middle of a conversation with actor Kevin Spacey (ah, a whole other kind of schwing factor; and he came alone).

Many people stopped talking to watch Stevie Wonder enter, showing up for the dinner just in time for seating. (And don't ask about the eye surgery, reporters were cautioned, in the wake of Friday's news that the musician had expressed interest in experimental computer-chip retina replacement at Johns Hopkins. Wonder, understandably testy, actually made light of the news earlier Saturday, jokingly telling people, "[The surgery] didn't work.")

Among the guests at the dinner were Andre Previn, Mia Farrow, the Walter Cronkites, the Colin Powells, singer Diane Schuur, a whole clan of Robardses and Kennedy Center Artist Committee members Michele Lee, Jack Paar and Dennis Hopper. (All things were equal and diplomatic, even galactically: Patrick Stewart's Capt. Jean-Luc Picard represented "Star Trek"; James Earl "Darth" Jones represented "Star Wars." "Shades of Vader, man, shades of Vader," actor Laurence Fishburne told Jones, admiring his voice.)

When enough Washington-Hollywood cross-pollinating had occurred, dinner was served--a shrimp and scallop pie, rack of lamb, winter squash and gaufrette potatoes (a k a potato chips!) and California wines and champagne; dessert was chocolate mousse with frozen clementines and berries. Mary Tyler Moore, who endured the evening with people wanting to shake her recently, minorly fractured (and unbandaged) right hand, told her doctor husband, Robert Levine, that she has perhaps never had a better dessert in her life.

"Isn't it awful?" joked 89-year-old Gloria Stuart, she of "Titanic" and the too-much-information memoir, sitting next to screenwriter Fay Kanin at the same table as Moore. "The food is inferior, the service is awful. It's really catch as catch can, isn't it?"

Let the Tributes Begin

The toasts also ran like familiar, if sentimental, clockwork. Fishburne, who was accompanied this weekend by his adorable and proud mother, Hattie, read each citation with a quiet flair. Borge--the Danish piano prodigy who taunted and then fled Hitler, going on to make the world laugh--was toasted by opera singer Sherrill Milnes. Connery ("The coolest man in the world," Fishburne pronounced) was toasted by Michael Douglas, who praised the actor "for every kind of role, in all the seasons of life."

The most eloquent toasts came for Jamison from Carmen de Lavallade (who praised the dancer for carrying on the work of Alvin Ailey, making it seem "as though he were still here") and Geoffrey Holder, who recalled young Jamison's insinuative presence on his imagination, until she became "12 feet tall," he said in his distinctive "un-cola" baritone.

Christopher Plummer toasted Robards not just for his contributions to stage and screen but also for the art of the long haul. It was survivor talk: "How the hell we ever got through the '50s," Plummer said, referring to the way actors can, er, carouse, "I'll never know." The toasts ended with Herbie Hancock mulling over the wonder of Stevie Wonder. "He's too young" was a resonant phrase from Hancock, suggesting another lifetime achievement award for when Wonder--at 49, the center's youngest laureate--finally winds down.

Into the Night

Speaking of Wonder winding down, there was the whiff of a rumor of a possibility that the singer sometimes likes to play piano in the bar of whichever hotel he stays in. After the glitz and glamour departed in limousines and sport-utility vehicles, returning the State Department building to its tranquil hulkishness, most of the famous retreated to the Westin Fairfax Hotel--the former Ritz-Carlton--but this was clearly not a Stevie Wonder kind of scene: An unrelated Christmas office gala, smelling of law firm and cigars, had just let out at the hotel and the place was atwitter with sightings of Plummer, Spacey and other stars (Glenne Headly; Lynn Redgrave) who lingered for a bit in the bar.

Sarah Robards, one of Jason's seven children and grandchildren who came to the Honors this weekend, said she enjoys seeing her father get proper due. He had retired for the evening, recovering as he is from surgery earlier this year. But she knew the weekend was making him happy, and it was good to have the family together. She cheerfully went down the Robards family tree: which of the kids were from his marriage to Lauren Bacall, which came before, which after. "We're a big, messy family," she said, "but it's a nice family. And we all want to be actors."

Meet Bond, James Bond

For many regulars at the Honors, the best feature of the weekend is Sunday's informal, invitation-only brunch hosted by George and Liz Stevens. Everybody is Somebody, which makes for tantalizing tete-a-tetes. So cozy, so fabulous, so Can't Miss.

"If I knew the secret, it wouldn't be a secret," said George Stevens. "That's a semi-famous line of Victor Borge's." He glanced around the Westin foyer, where honorees Borge, Wonder and Connery were surrounded by clumps of illustrious admirers. "You look around and . . . there's Jack Paar!"

Hollywood and Washington, tucked into tight little orbits of fame and admiration: Alan Greenspan, Andrea Mitchell and Jack Valenti, rapt in conversation with Connery. James Earl Jones posing for the paparazzi with Vernon Jordan. Actors Sam Waterston and Michael York, being humble and charming to a succession of Washington ladies. Frank Langella, Ron Silver and Spacey, braving the hordes to honor Robards.

"My regard for Jason makes everything else disappear," said Spacey, the star of "The Iceman Cometh" on Broadway and the recent film "American Beauty."

He had little time for small talk and ego-stroking; he was in Washington to fly the flag for actors like Robards, who became a movie star but never abandoned the stage.

The Connery effect was remarkable: Every man at the brunch wanted to be Connery. Every woman wanted . . . well, just wanted Connery.

"John Dingell met his idol," said Debbie Dingell, wife of the Michigan congressman. "He doesn't know 99 percent of the people in Hollywood, but he was thrilled to meet Connery."

Or consider Janet Langhart Cohen. The wife of the defense secretary has met presidents, kings, you name it. Her reaction when she discovered she was seated next to Connery at Saturday's State Department dinner: "There is a God."

Who could ask for anything more?

Staff writer Roxanne Roberts contributed to this story.

CAPTION: Kennedy Center Honors recipient Sean Connery with President and Hillary Clinton at last night's gala, above; honoree Victor Borge, pianist and funnyman, left, clowned around before the awards dinner Saturday night. The other honorees were dancer-choreographer Judith Jamison, actor Jason Robards and musician Stevie Wonder.

CAPTION: Stirred, and shaken: Clockwise from lower left, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a grip-and-grin with Sean Connery; Stevie Wonder arrives at Saturday's dinner; and Dennis Hopper, wife Victoria Duffy, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas make a show of support.