"obody writes popular songs," Irving Berlin once said. "Popular songs are songs that become popular. That's all there is to it."

And not just anybody honors popular songwriters. The popular songwriters, it seems, are the songwriters honored by the Kennedy Center. Is that all there is to it? You would be excused for thinking so.

For the past eight years, the Kennedy Center has bestowed honors on artists for the achievements of a lifetime in a glamorous televised awards ceremony. The recipients have included songwriters Richard Rodgers and, this year, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. But Irving Berlin, now 97 and the author of more than 1,000 songs -- "White Christmas," "Easter Parade" and "God Bless America" among them -- has yet to join the growing list of Kennedy Center honorees. Renee E. Renzi, whose letter appears on this page, wonders why. So do we.

The reason, evidently, has little to do with Mr. Berlin and the songs he began selling as early as 1907. Roger Stevens, the Kennedy Center's chairman, says he's been trying to "get Irving Berlin for years." But the rules stipulate that the award be granted only to those artists who can attend the ceremony, and Mr. Berlin, who lives in New York, has not felt up to the trip. The ceremony is a big fund-raising event for this city's renowned cultural center, which is why the people in charge want the stars in their seats during the show. "Box-office moxie," Mr. Stevens calls it.

All right -- rules are rules. And it's not as if Mr. Berlin had escaped all official notice: President Eisenhower presented him with a gold medal in 1955 and President Ford with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, in 1977.

Still, it does seem to us that rarely have prize and prospective recipient been better matched than in the case of Mr. Berlin and the Kennedy Center honors. Just this once couldn't they bend the rules?