DID YOU CATCH "The Kennedy Center Honors" on CBS Saturday night? It was marvelous, as television, as an occasion (the real event took place on Dec. 7) and as an idea. The Kennedy Center's idea is, of course, to create a tradition of national recognition for "lifetime achievement in the performing arts." There is something a bit forced and self-conscious and, well, American about trying to create a tradition: traditions are supposed to grow on you, like moss. But in this instance there was no awkwardness. The Kennedy Center had singled out five authentic heroes of American culture: Lynn Fontanne, Anges de Mille, Leontyne Price, Leonard Bernstein and James Cagney. They have been growing on us all for decades.

Culture is often said to be a universal enterprise, one passing mercifully over national boundaries, and there is a sense in which that is necessary and true. But there is another sense in which culture is a national product flowing from the circumstances of a particular place. The creativity being displayed and honored at the Kennedy Center was unmistakably American: fresh, open, expressive, humanistic, accessible, optimistic, drawing on a common core of American experience. Who watching the show, did not beam at actress Lynn Fontanne, cavorting with Alfred Lunt? Laugh with the dancer with the windmill arms in the work Agnes de Mille had choreographed for this event? Gasp with pride at Leontyne Price's Metropolitan Opera debut? Sway with Leonard Bernstein's every beat? Dance up the wall with James Cagney?

But in Washington, the audience is always part of the show.Everybody political from the Carters on down was there. Hostess Beverly Sills graciously noted, in another Americanism, that Mr. Carter had "set a record" by appearing at 28 Kennedy Center events. We liked that. The associations of culture and politics are diverse and not always without strain.The Carters, however, have been faithful patrons of the best in the American creative tradition. That is the way it should be.