Tonight more than 2,000 of the high, the mighty, the plain and the just plain rich will glide, bejeweled and black-tied, down the grand foyer of the Kennedy Center to participate in the eighth annual Kennedy Center Honors, a ceremony and fundraiser that has been called everything from the Academy Awards East to a National Knighthood for the Arts.

If past is prelude, as the guests proceed from last night's State Department dinner and medals ceremony to today's White House reception to the Kennedy Center gala and dinner, there will be a popping of flashbulbs and neck craning as everyone agrees how incredible it is to see political and corporate Washington transfixed by something other than their Very Important Selves.

No doubt there will be talk of what a long way Washington has come from the days when the only showcase in town for the performing arts was DAR Constitution Hall. When the Honors ceremony took its first bow in 1978, top tickets were going for a mere $250, and the show's producers spent much of their time on the phone with potential performers and even honorees, explaining the Honors concept and, in some cases, the Kennedy Center concept as well.

"It was impossible," recalls Nick Vanoff, coproducer of the Honors with George Stevens Jr. "We had to get on our knees and beg."

If their friends could see them now. This year the best tickets are $2,500 each, and the show was sold out in a matter of days. Corporations snapped up blocks of tickets for their Washington friends and their executives; the show will be broadcast on network television three weeks later and seen by millions.

"The recognition it provides has become coveted in the performing-arts world, and the weekend of events has become the most distinguished of awards ceremonies in the United States," proclaims the center's official Honors newsletter.

The Honors have brought to Washington a giddy, glittering parade of artists and entertainers including James Stewart and Henry Fonda, playwrights Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, choreographers Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille, Ella Fitzgerald, Artur Rubinstein, Richard Rodgers, Frank Sinatra, Leonard Bernstein, etc., five a year -- every year since 1978.

This year, in a break with its nascent tradition, there are six honorees: opera director and retired soprano Beverly Sills, choreographer Merce Cunningham, actress Irene Dunne, comedian Bob Hope, lyricist-playwright Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe.

"What we look for is artists that are recognized beyond a doubt as being outstanding artists in their field," says Vanoff.

And many of those associated with the show -- producers, artists and past honorees -- say it is the only time the nation sits up and takes notice of the lifelong achievements of American artists.

There are those, however -- critics, producers, even a few board members and honorees -- who will praise the show publicly but privately express reservations, scoffing at what they view as the Kennedy Center's pretensions to national artistic significance.

Some wonder about the role politics and friendship may play in the selections, no matter how distinguished the recipients, and are puzzled by the mechanics of the selection. Some see the Honors as a publicity vehicle for the Kennedy Center, a good fundraiser, a nice night out for the artists and honorees and leave it at that. "Awards generally exist in order to celebrate the awarder," one past honoree notes wryly.

Criticism is one of the prices of success, and the Honors have, by most measurements, been wildly successful -- not least as a fundraiser. The Honors provide attendees with the chance to do good, enhanced by a link to culture and the pleasures of mingling with the rich and powerful. Be honest. Where would you rather be -- the Kennedy Center Honors or the Ear, Nose and Throat Ball?

Principal and most obvious beneficiary, of course, is the Kennedy Center, which relies on private contributions for about 17 percent of its $31 million annual budget. The Honors are expected to raise close to $1 million this year, making the event the single most important fundraiser the center holds all year.

But the honors also have served to raise the center's profile and to lend credence to its claim to be the nation's, rather than the city's, performing-arts center. (That claim has been bolstered recently with the arrival of director Peter Sellars and the American National Theater, but for years, in the theater world at least, the Kennedy Center was known as a booking house and tryout stage for shows on their way to Broadway.)

CBS Television, which airs the two-hour Honors event on Dec. 27, gets the chance to associate itself with a prestigious, noncommercial benefit for the arts. Kennedy Center officials are the first to concede that ratings for the show have been less than spectacular, and they sometimes mention the ratings as evidence of the ceremony's freedom from crass commercialism. But the TV special also gives the Honors a special cachet.

For guests, the show apparently is such a wonderful opportunity to support the arts and schmooze among the powerful that 36 percent of the tickets are snapped up by corporations like AT&T, Merrill Lynch (which underwrites the gala dinner), Comsat, Hallmark and others, with CBS buying the biggest block, a couple of hundred seats, according to the Kennedy Center. Most years, according to the White House, a few of the corporate bigwigs as well as a producer or two have been seated with the president high above the Kennedy Center Opera House.

CBS pays the Kennedy Center a $1.5 million licensing fee to produce the show, which last year cost the center $1.47 million. Overall the center took in $2.6 million for the Honors and spent $1.6 million.

For the price of a tax deductible ticket -- from $2,500 (gala dinner included) to $50 (watch your hat and coat) -- the audience gets the chance to mingle with or at least ogle the president, dozens of senators and congressmen, Cabinet secretaries and a glittering roster of celebrities, performers and artists including Edward Albee, Jane Alexander, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Don Ameche, Jasper Johns, Helen Hayes, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Brooke Shields and others.

One of the Honors' biggest draws has been its association with the White House, which began during the Carter administration. The White House reception in the State rooms on Sunday before the Honors gives the First Couple a chance to put in an appearance for the arts, and the Kennedy Center Honors are transformed from just another benefit to a glittering event on the Washington calendar.

Gerald Rafshoon, former special assistant to President Carter and now a Kennedy Center trustee, remembers when George Stevens Jr. approached the White House with the idea of a presidential reception. "It seemed like a good opportunity for the president to honor the artists." At the time, Rafshoon remembers, there was some sentiment at the White House that the president should select the honorees.

That idea was quashed, but the White House agreed to sign on as reception host. In fact, the White House reception is so popular that this year the Kennedy Center has had to restrict the guest list to 340 or so. It has scheduled a second reception on Sunday at the Kennedy Center for corporate benefactors (the so-called "Golden Circle") who were squeezed out of the White House reception this year. The Reagans will be in attendance.

And then there are the principals, Roger Stevens, septuagenarian Kennedy Center chairman, and George Stevens Jr. (no relation), former founding director of the American Film Institute and now its unsalaried cochairman. Those who have been associated with the Kennedy Center since its creation often talk about the Kennedy Center "family." In the case of George Stevens Jr., that's particularly so.

George Stevens Jr. dreamed the Honors show up and has coproduced it since its inception. A filmmaker and producer, he came to Washington during the Kennedy administration and has worked on both coasts since. His wife Elizabeth, a decorator, has for several years volunteered her services as organizer of the artists' dinner at the State Department. George Stevens Jr.'s mother-in-law, Elizabeth Polk Guest, a former head of Friends of the Kennedy Center, is on the Honors gala benefit committee.

Stevens Jr., who maintains an office at the AFI's suite at the Kennedy Center, is the son of film director George Stevens ("Shane," "Giant"). In the '60s, he convinced Roger Stevens, then first chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, of the need for the American Film Institute and for federal funding, now about 25 percent of the AFI's budget, according to the AFI. In the early '70s, he conceived and began producing the AFI's Life Achievement Awards -- a Los Angeles event and fundraiser that honors one film actor each year.

The Kennedy Center Honors must have seemed irresistible.

"It really came out of a genuine notion that the arts should be recognized and it would be wonderful to share it with the American people. And it would be nice to raise some money for the Kennedy Center, which always needs it," says George Stevens Jr.

Stevens Jr. has his own production company, but the Kennedy Center contracts his services as an individual, as it does for those of producer Vanoff and director Don Mischer, successful television producers who have received Emmy awards for their work on the Honors show.

Neither Stevens nor Vanoff will say how much the Kennedy Center pays them for producing the Honors show, except to say that it is much less than they would receive for producing a similar, commercial TV show. Two years ago, Stevens Jr. was reported to have been paid $57,000 to produce and cowrite the Life Achievement Awards. (To date, five of the Life Achievement recipients have also received the Kennedy Center Honors: James Cagney, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Fred Astaire and Lillian Gish.)

Stevens Jr. and his colleagues say doing the show is a labor of love, a chance to say thank you to American artists. They relish the chance to do a high prestige tribute and say they have worked to keep the Honors (they do not like the word award) a classy show, distinct, they say, from the Oscars and Emmys.

"You know, to do something not as financially rewarding as some other things you could be doing, you have to have some belief that the institution and what it represents and produces is of some value," says George Stevens Jr., adding that he works in Washington as well as Hollywood for the "same reason Merce Cunningham does ballets without music -- to do something a little different."

What the honorees and audience get each year is a tribute that is long on pomp and affection. Tonight, they will sit in the presidential box, watching and listening to several hours of laurels from admirers. They will see film clips and still photographs of their careers and live performances of some of their works. After that, they and the approximately 1,750 guests who have paid the requisite $500 and up, retire to the red-carpeted foyer for a late-night supper and dancing to the Count Basie orchestra.

Stevens, Vanoff and Mischer work on and off for months and very intensely at the end. The show is carefully crafted and often includes emotional moments like that in 1983 when Carol Burnett, joined by the Air Force Chorale, sang "Easy to Love" to James Stewart. It was the only song Stewart ever sang on screen in a career of more than 80 films. The song brought tears to Stewart's eyes.

The show's producers and director speak with pride about the times when they managed to get visible reactions from the honorees. Some are tougher than others, however. The year James Cagney was honored, the program featured generous tributes from Baryshnikov and John Travolta. Cagney remained poker faced. "I'll never forget it," says director Mischer. " . . . there was no reaction and in the [television] truck I was saying 'Just some kind of reaction! Let us know that you're hearing it!' " It was Walter Cronkite, he said, who got Cagney to crack a smile. "There were cheers in the truck. 'We got him! We touched him!' " Mischer said. "Because that's what makes us feel best, when something that we do moves people."

Lest anyone miss the emotional significance, the Kennedy Center emblazons it on the cover of the newsletter that it releases each year after the show:

"During the show I had tears in my eyes." -- Cary Grant.

"How does it compare to other awards? I don't think it exists like this." -- Rudolf Serkin.

"This is the most coveted award you can win." -- Frank Sinatra.

And if you still needed convincing, they even quote people who weren't honorees: "The best weekend of anything since I've been in show business." -- Florence Henderson.

"It's so uplifting!" -- Sid Caeser.

And, "When the kids came out and sang with Perry Como I didn't think I'd make it through." -- Sissy Spacek.

The Honors are for lifetime achievement and most of the honorees have been of an age and stature beyond which the award itself could possibly be of any professional benefit. Still, it is obviously important to many of them. "I am more grateful than I can tell," says violinist Isaac Stern, honored in 1984. "It was a very special time for me and my family. I don't know of an artist, however grand his career has been, who did not consider this a most special moment."

This year the Honors gala benefit committee is two men and 14 women, which in addition to longtime Washington figures like Evangeline Bruce, Ethel Kennedy and Buffy Cafritz includes the wives of longtime friends of the Reagans: They are listed on the invitation as Mrs. Michael Deaver, Mrs. Walter Annenberg, Mrs. Charles Z. Wick, Mrs. Earle Jorgensen and Mrs. Thomas V. Jones.

The chairman of the gala is Bonita Granville Wrather, a former actress, businesswoman and the widow of the late Jack Wrather, a financier and film and television producer and member of Ronald Reagan's Kitchen Cabinet. She was first appointed to the Kennedy Center board by President Nixon and has, according to those working with her on the benefit, organized the gala with zest, jetting back and forth between Washington and California at least five times since the spring.

Wrather said she invited the wives to join the gala committee because she wanted some "fresh faces," to broaden the gala committee's Washington base.

She is also a member of the Kennedy Center board's executive committee, the 23-member inner circle that, according to the center, includes Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho), lawyer Frank Ikard, Kennedy Center general counsel Harry C. McPherson Jr., hotelier Marshall B. Coyne, Mrs. J. Willard Marriott, Jean Kennedy Smith, Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC. Adams, former defense secretary Melvin Laird and Motion Picture Association mogul Jack Valenti. It is this committee that makes final selection and passes the decision on for what in most years has been quick approval by the full board. Board Chairman Roger Stevens says, "We've had nothing but praise from the board every time we submit the list."

According to the two Stevenses, the executive committee is aided in its task by a list of suggestions from 86 performers, directors, producers, etc., known as the Artists Committee for the Kennedy Center Honors. That committee includes everyone from Jacqueline Bisset to producer Joseph Papp. Artists' committee members serve at the invitation of Roger Stevens and receive tickets to the gala in exchange for making their suggestions, which come by mail and informally by telephone and in person when committee members meet in Washington for the gala each year.

Blues singer Joe Williams, for example, recalls hearing Count Basie play at one of the first galas and pushing hard to have Basie honored, which he was in 1981. Papp says he tries "very hard to make sure that some of the black or other minority artists" are considered.

Neither the executive committee nor the full board, however, is limited to the artists' committee list and may add its own favorites if it wishes.

How the executive circle whittles the list is a bit of a mystery. Some board members refuse to talk about the selection process; others say they don't know how it happens, which puts them in the category of the general public. Two board members say the two Stevenses consider the artists' committee list first, then make recommendations to a receptive executive committee.

"Roger has his own ideas," says one center trustee, "but he doesn't dictate. That's not his style."

"I really think that the thing has worked out so well, I don't think anything is to be gained by getting into any more details," Roger Stevens says. "It begins with the artists' committee and as I've said, I've always been surprised there hasn't been more controversy, because I get a lot of complaints, but never about these choices.

"Somebody says well, you should have so and so, but usually it's somebody that we might not want, say, three violinists. This year you could say we have two movie stars but it goes way beyond that because Bob Hope has done everything and Irene Dunne had a good career on Broadway before she moved to Hollywood."

While few would belittle the artistic credentials of any honoree, it has been noted that some recipients have social ties to the White House. For example, Sinatra, an honoree in 1983, is a Reagan pal; so is Bob Hope, selected this year. Irene Dunne, another choice this year, happens to be a friend of Nancy Reagan's and a neighbor of Bonita Granville Wrather.

Wrather is forthright about her preferences. "I happened to have two or three people I wanted to see. She's a neighbor of mine and a social friend, and she was already on the artists' committee list. She's just one of those great '40s actresses like Bette Davis and Claudette Colbert. I think she's long overdue. You shouldn't wait too long, you know."

Wrather said Nancy Reagan did no lobbying. "She wouldn't dream of discussing the matter, but I'm sure she's delighted that Bob Hope and Irene Dunne were chosen because they're great personal friends."

Sources close to the board say the Republican members of the board were keen on Dunne and Hope and say it was a matter of friends putting in a good word for friends. Hope and Dunne, they say, were already on the artists' committee lists. "And she is the one that people are most mad to get tickets to see," says Wrather.

There are other quibbles. If, as center officials say, the Honors are a prestigious award first and a television show second, why does the center stipulate that awards be given only to those artists who will attend the ceremony? That clause has kept the award from songwriter Irving Berlin, who at 97 does not feel up to making the trip to Washington.

Roger Stevens says he has been trying to "get Irving Berlin for years." He even suggested putting television cameras in Berlin's New York quarters, but Berlin rejected the idea, saying he didn't think it would be fair to the audience. Stevens defends the policy of having honorees be present.

" . . .I think its very important. The combination of having the actual awardees present and the president of the United States is what gives it its box-office moxie, you might say."

And some say the list of honorees is too heavy on box-office film stars, too safe.

"These Honors have often seemed like selections made by the World Almanac and the Republican National Committee," says one eminent East Coast theater director who asked not to be named. "There's nothing there to disturb anyone except those seriously interested in the arts."

Kennedy Center officials dismiss the criticism. "Safe?" says George Stevens Jr. "I would start a role call: Artur Rubinstein, Balanchine, Martha Graham, Aaron Copland, Lena Horne . . . these are adventurous people who really have contributed immeasurably to our culture. I would ask, who isn't 'safe?' "

Achievement in the arts, says George Stevens Jr. and others, does not preclude success at the box office. Film stars belong at the Honors, agrees Papp. "It's more democratic selection that way, although it may be less sophisticated. We have a huge movie industry.

"Perhaps if they weren't giving so many, they could be more selective," Papp continues. "I think after a while they'll run out. But you can only judge it by the people who have gotten it. I mean I'd be the first one to criticize if I thought it wasn't a good selection . . . It serves a purpose and a good one. I'm a big supporter."

Or as Roger Stevens says, "The proof is in the pudding."