GOOD MORNING FROM WASHINGTON: Sunday night at the White House, before departing for a NATO meeting, president Clinton laughed, saying “I can’t believe I’m going to be in Budapest tomorrow morning.” The president and Hillary Clinton greeted and congratulated the Kennedy Center Honorees in the East Room of the White House. After making his complimentary remarks to Kirk Douglas, the President said “The question when this administration is finished is, will the ending be more like “Spartacus’ or ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’?” The president did not stand in the usual receiving line for the black tie’d guests at the White House, leaving it to the First Lady to greet the guests alongside the magnificent Christmas Tree in the Blue Room … The festive mood of the ceremony at the State Dept. where the five honorees were presented their medals was tempered by an atmosphere of apprehension. Not only was concern about future finances for the arts the topic among guests/performers, but the words of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot (sitting in for Warren Christopher, who’s in Europe) were cautionary. He warned, “In these difficult times of change, politics doesn’t matter.” But most feared that it does. When Talbot gave thanks to Tom Foley and George Mitchell for their support of the arts during the Demo reign, both received prolonged applause. James D. Wolfensohn, chairman of the Kennedy Center, addressing the group in the always-impressive State Dept. great hall, brought the crowd to its feet when he announced that Jack Smith of General Motors had given $ 1 million to the Kennedy Center that night. Also there getting a bow was CBS’ Larry Tisch. The special will air on his network. Further evidence of the feeling in D.C. was expressed by one outgoing lawmaker, who said to Alan and Marilyn Bergman, “Thanks for writing our song –‘The Way We Were.’ “

AS REVEALED HERE LAST FRIDAY, President Clinton had to forego attending the awards gala after greeting the honorees and guests at Sunday afternoon’s cocktail’er, and so Hillary invited Caroline Kennedy and her husband, Ed Schlossberg, Pamela Harriman and the Gores to join her in the presidential box in the Kennedy Center. Actor Christopher Plummer was the m.c. for Saturday night’s presentation of medals to the honorees. Introducing Kirk Douglas, Plummer called him “the first anti-hero who became a star.” Jack Valenti was called upon to deliver the traditional toast to his longtime friend. Valenti reminded it was Kirk who “destroyed the Hollywood blacklist forever.” He told how Douglas demanded that Dalton Trumbo’s name be fully credited onscreen for “Spartacus” despite warning and advice from friends that the decision would destroy Douglas as well. Kirk was surrounded by wife Anne, sons Michael, Peter and Eric and handsome grandson Cameron, now taller than his father, Michael. Eric told me he was doing two Improv gigs in D.C. over the weekend. Aretha Franklin was toasted by Herbie Hancock, who said, “When she opened up her pipes, she filled everybody’s life with courage and compassion.” ASCAP president Marilyn Bergman, who led the toast to Morton Gould, revealed the multitalented Gould “could have been a comedian, actor — or statesman!”… Complimenting honoree Hal Prince, Plummer, who got an early B’way start from him, said, “He chartered a new direction for the Great White Way.” George C. Wolfe, head of the Public Theater, where Prince brings his next show, said Prince “knows better than anyone how to make a show soar.” For honoree Pete Seeger, Plummer noted, “He summoned music from the heart of America.” Arlo Guthrie, before toasting Seeger, cracked, “The reason I had to come here tonight was to see Peter in a tux!” Seeger received prolonged applause. I noted Seeger, stranger to these fancy parts, was soaking up some of the great paintings and artifacts of American history in the magnificent anterooms leading into the State Dept.’s great hall, over which chandeliers sparkled.

AMONG GUESTS ON HAND WAS writer Peter Stone, who said he and Michael Jackson are making good progress on the musicalized, modern “Romeo & Juliet” for a feature film. Kathleen Turner said she returns to B’way in February in “Infidelities,” a five-character play which, she noted, is in direct contrast to the current big musicals a la “Show Boat.” Among past Kennedy Center honorees there, Fayard Nicholas. The weekend would not have been possible, Wolfensohn reminded, without the work of co-chairs Buffy Cafritz and Donna McLarty, Liz (Mrs. George) Stevens and committee heads including Caroline Peachey. Sunday morning, Liz and George Stevens Jr. hosted a brunch in the host hotel Ritz-Carlton’s famed Fairfax Bar where showbiz and politix mixed in advance of the trek to the White House reception at 5 p.m.

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