GOOD MORNING from Washington, D.C., where Sunday night President and Hillary Clinton greeted this year’s Kennedy Center honorees in the East Room of the White House, decorated more beautifully than ever for the holiday season. It was Hillary in a red satin Oscar de la Renta ball gown who introduced the President. As he announced each honoree, Clinton had a bon mot for each one. For Lauren Bacall: “I’m grateful she took time from being a legend to campaign for me last year.” For Bob Dylan: “Thank you for a lifetime of stirring the conscience of a nation.” For Charlton Heston, he noted: “I want to acknowledge that I can’t thank him for campaigning for me” — but he did say Heston is, has been and always will be larger than life. For Jessye Norman: He thanked her for singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” “at my last inaugural. You were a tough act to follow.” For Edward Villella: “Long before Michael Jordan, he showed us man could fly.” The President made note “of the great contributions of the artists to the whole world.” And there is talk here at the White House that Frank Sinatra will soon get his medal as a birthday present.“MY BROTHER would have been proud,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy at the State Dept. dinner Saturday night, launching the weekend of the 20th anni of the Honors. He reminded, “It is also the 35th anniversary of my brother’s pledge” for the national center for the arts. And, as is inscribed on the wall of the Kennedy Center, the words of JFK: “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.” Edward Kennedy, on a lighter note, assured all, “I’m going to continue running for the Senate until I get the hang of it.” … From the magnificent Ben Franklin dining room where new honorees, past honorees and black-tied guests gathered Saturday night, the view included the sparklingly lit Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and, in the distance, the Arlington Cemetery with the flickering flame at the grave of President John F. Kennedy. This is as dramatic a setting as could be hoped for. Guests entered the Franklin Room through the history-filled Jefferson and John Quincy Adams rooms with paintings of our nation’s leaders and personal treasures from their homes … As so often happens, the secretary of state, who hosts these Saturday evenings preceding the taping of the Kennedy Center Honors show (CBS airs Dec. 26), was called away on affairs of state. This time Madeleine Albright was in Europe on meetings concerning the Israeli-Arab problems. And she would continue on to South Africa. AMERICA’S ARTISTS are our best ambassadors — operating without instructions from Washington,” said Tim Wirth, under-secretary of state, hosting for Albright. “What you do,” he said to the showbiz honorees, “has a tremendous impact on life the world over.” … Kennedy Center chairman James A. Johnson in welcoming the invitees and new honorees also announced past winners on hand — who stood for a bow. they were Maria Tallchief (’96), Sidney Poitier (’95), Fayard and Harold Nicholas, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Gregory Peck (all of ’91), Roger Stevens (’88) and Leontyne Price (’80). Sam Waterston took over emcee duties as the new honorees actually received their medals. Peter Stone delivered the toast to Lauren Bacall, noting she never missed a performance in all four shows in which she starred on B’way and also noting she is an “honest-to-God movie star!” He added she was robbed of an Oscar for her portrayal of Barbra Streisand’s mother in “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” adding, “She was too young to be Streisand’s mother — at least when the movie started.” Stone, who has two hit shows on B’way (“Titanic” and the “1776″ revival), is also readying a revival of “Annie” and, with Kander and Ebb (for the fourth time), a new play, “Curtains,” with Tommy Tune to direct … Ron Silver delivered a highly dramatic — and emotional — toast to Bob Dylan (who received prolonged applause as he was announced). Silver admitted, “I’ve never met Bob Dylan, but he knows my heart.” Silver’s date: the beautiful Countess Catherine de Castelbajac … L.A. Music Center’s Gordon Davidson, no stranger to honoree Heston, admitted, “Although we are sometimes on opposite sides of the stage (politically), we are always on the same side in support of the NEA” … Jessye Norman received her toast — in words and music — from past winner Price, reminding also, “How often can a Mississippian salute a Georgian?” … To honoree Edward Villella, Waterston noted, “Before him, mothers would have said they’d rather have their sons join the Foreign Legion than become a ballet dancer!” Tallchief toasted and praised Villella. TO (TRY AND) ILLUSTRATE the bipartisanship of the Kennedy Center, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was called on to speak — even though his lack of support for funds for the NEA is known by the arts community. Those thanked for the State Dept. evening were: Liz Stevens, Buffy Cafritz and — for the Honors TV show — George Stevens Jr. and Don Mischer. (Lou Horvitz directs the TV’er.) Also noted was Falisa Vanoff, wife of the late Nick Vanoff, who co-created the Honors with Stevens 20 years ago. Among those on hand: Gregory Peck, who intro’d Bob Dylan at the awards show. Dylan had rocked D.C. with a performance at the 9:30 Club before the toasting weekend began. Also there to present to Norman (she had presented his honors to him) was Sidney Poitier. Cy Coleman and Wendy Wasserstein also were there — they are prepping a live musical for DisneyWorld about a child’s first musical show. Joanne Woodward was on hand to present to Villella. Woodward, too, is a past honoree — along with husband Paul Newman. A.E. Hotchner, Ben Bradlee, Martin Manulis, Walter and Larry Mirisch, the Bud Yorkins, presenter (to Heston) Lynn Redgrave and husband John Clark, Michele Lee (readying the Jackie Susann CBS telepic) and husband Fred Rappoport — who recalled he had to push Dylan onstage when Fred was in school at Brown … Also, Geoffrey Holder, Fay Kanin, Theo Bikel, Kitty Hart, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Christine Baranski (a presenter on the show to Bacall), Gen. Colin Powell, Donald Sutherland, Dina Merrill and Ted Hartley, readying their “Mighty Joe Young” for Disney summer ’98 (the Hartleys hold their holiday party tonight at N.Y.’s River Club), Hannah and Alan Pakula, Joe Williams, who sang at the Kennedy Center gala after the Honors, and Skitch Henderson … Sunday morning, Elizabeth and George Stevens Jr. hosted the traditional brunch in the Luxury Collections Hotel, formerly called the Ritz Carlton, but with the same grace and hospitality for the visiting showbiz contingent. Among others presenting and participating in the 20th gala Honors show: Walter Cronkite as emcee, Tony Roberts and Gregg Edelman, Brian d’Arcy James, “Ragtime’s” Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, ballerinas Tallchief and Suzanne Farrell, Sylvia McNair, Hakan Hagegard, Marvin Hamlisch, Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking, Bruce Springsteen, David Ball, Shirley Caesar, Michael Mathis, Don Was, Clifford Carter, Ray Charles, Howard U. Choir plus — in the finale — the U.S. Marine Drum & Bugle Corps, Army Chorus, Naval Academy Glee Club, U.S. Army trumpeters and “America the Beautiful” sung with the entire Kennedy Center audience and cast of the emotional show.