PARTY MANNERS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - Opera divas mingled with Cabinet officials, pop stars preened for Washington wonks and red celebrities sidled up to blue celebrities as last night's Kennedy Center Honors injected much-needed glitz to a capital still stuck in a post-election hangover.

Hollywood liberals partied in the Bush administration's embrace and, though much of their ranks had campaigned hard against the president, most kept their political opinions sealed tighter than an L.A. face lift during festivities that lasted all weekend. Similarly mum was former Democratic candidate John Kerry, who sat in the Kennedy Center audience last night applauding while President Bush grinned from the box with this year's honorees - British rocker Elton John, actor Warren Beatty, Australian opera singer Joan Sutherland, composer John Williams and married actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.

The weekend's events at the State Department, the White House and the Kennedy Center brought the famous onto a political stage. Rap/rocker Kid Rock guzzled a Jim Beam and Coke at the White House and country singer Naomi Judd talked hog hunting with Vice President Dick Cheney. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell offered to give Beatty's young son Benjamin a quick State Department tour and Faye Dunaway nearly crashed into former Democratic presidential running-mate John Edwards on the Kennedy Center's red carpet (this being Washington, he caused a bigger stir).

Celebrities offering surprise tributes to the honorees on the Kennedy Center stage last night played nice, avoiding election talk. Moviemaker and vocal Democrat Steven Spielberg praised Williams - who wrote the theme music to several Spielberg smash hits like Jaws and Star Wars -- and blew a little kiss to the Republicans, saying that Williams was as all-American as apple pie and George W. Bush's mother. Later, Nicholson helped toast Beatty - "For years Warren has dreamed of attending these awards - unfortunately not exactly as a Kennedy honoree, but as President of the United States," he said while the actual president laughed along.

In lauding John, actor Robert Downey Jr. referred to himself as "a recovering liberal-aholic" and added that both he and Kerry were victims of ADD - "Altruistic Democrat Disorder.

"Technically, the Kennedy Center evening is the highlight of the weekend, but Washington and Hollywood have this in common: The more exclusive the party the better. While there were 1,800 people jammed in the Kennedy Center, at a much smaller State Department event for the honorees Saturday night hosted by Secretary of State Powell, celebrities flitted lightly through the world of politics and hunted down fellow famous people.

"Have you seen Joel - is Billy here?" Sir Elton asked his boyfriend, David Furnish, scanning the room behind blue-tinted glasses. Later, Joel would surface by a Thomas Jefferson statue, musing, "Man, they had some great outfits back then." But at that moment Joel was nowhere to be found, so Sir Elton grabbed Kid Rock and hugged him instead.

"I'm a quasi-American," the honoree said, explaining his success in the United States.

Kid Rock sipped his drink - brought to him by his personal assistant clad in a tuxedo and tartan golf cap - and took in his first-ever Kennedy Center weekend. "I'm a virgin," he said, and then waved his "KR" diamond pinkie ring toward a glass case holding the Treaty of Versailles. "That French Treaty from 1793? That's like 200 years old or something. I never thought in my wildest dreams anyone would let me anywhere close to here."

Beatty, a Northern Virginia native, seemed at home in Washington but still moved cautiously across the post-election landscape. The avowed liberal bowed to Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy but kept mum. "Get me in a couple of weeks," he said, "and we'll have a rip-roaring discussion."

Honoree Ruby Dee was more outspoken; but then, she has often chosen projects about civil rights, segregation and the struggles of African-Americans - like her role in A Raisin in the Sun, a play about working-class blacks on the cusp of the 1960s.

"The more informed the artist, the richer his output," Dee said at the State Department. "Otherwise what are we being artistic about? The artist helps to put our times in perspective."

All weekend, politics and celebrity collided. Sen. Kennedy greeted veteran newsman Walter Cronkite - "Walter, great to see you! Let's go sailing!" - before Cronkite sat down with Bo Derek; she in turn let out a little squeal when she hugged Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the Kennedy Center red carpet. Hollywood liberal-turned-Iraq war supporter Ron Silver sidled up to Nicholson before railing against liberal filmmaker Michael Moore. And Aretha Franklin was asking if Fantasia, the winner from American Idol, would be appearing at all during the weekend (she did, in tribute to Elton John, as did Kid Rock and Billy Joel).

Actress Cicely Tyson spent the weekend snapping shots with her digital camera as celebrities honed in on each other, breezing past the Washington unknowns to land air kisses on the famous people. "God, I wish I was someone," an unidentified guest told her date before entering the State Department star-fest - actress Julia Ormond next to violinist Itzhak Perlman next to Dance Theatre of Harlem Director Arthur Mitchell.

Few politicians dare utter anything quote-worthy at these events. Secretary Powell was the only one who came close. In toasting Beatty Saturday night, Powell paid tribute to the actor's role in Bulworth - a 1998 film in which Beatty played a politician who embraces truth and rap music - by launching into his own self-styled rap number.

"I'm Colin Luther Powell. Public service is my thing. Don't do it for the fame. Don't do it for the bling," he rapped, fingers splayed, gangsta-style. "I'm a soldjah," he went on, "brass stars on my shoulda." A few more riffs, and finally he wound down: "I came back in the office as secretary, and what comes after this, you'll all just have to wait and see." Pounding his chest once, he shouted out to Beatty, "Representing, my bruthah!"

Annette Bening hooted at the rap and then toasted her husband, Beatty, teasing him for his ladies' man reputation. She described him stumbling into an adult painting class as a kid and seeing his first nude woman. "Needless to say," she quipped, "Warren was riveted."

But few celebrities wanted to get too naked with their anecdotes or their politics. Most seemed to impose their own five-second delay to avoid opinion malfunctions.

Nicholson lingered by the Chippendale furniture talking to a redhead - "my executive assistant, let's call her" - but stuck to well-behaved banter with reporters.

"I'm a very patriotic American - I always kvell a little bit" when in Washington, said the actor and former Kennedy Center honoree. He added that he wanted the country to heal after the campaign. "Washington, the president of the United States, all that. I'm behind it. I'm behind the president. But I'm a DEMOCRAT, mind you."

At the State Department, Judd tried to keep her politics under her crown, literally. Calling herself a "snow queen" in a white tiara, long white dress and white crocheted overjacket, she said she wouldn't get political, though noted that she stood out in the crowd of black gowns: "I'm always a little left of center of everyone else - but I don't use the word 'left' in Washington." She called the weekend arts celebration inspirational: "This country's so divided right now, it hurts my soul, but this stuff just soars above everything else."

Not everyone was so careful. When asked if Hollywood liberals put their politics aside while inside the Bush administration's embrace, Joel replied, "Baloney!" Joel, who said celebrities were debating Iraq during the weekend, didn't worry about political correctness when it came to John either. He noted that the singer (one of the few foreigners to receive the Kennedy Center Honors) already was knighted by the queen. "So what's this for?" Joel asked.

Joel, who has not been awarded what many consider the country's highest honor for artistic achievement, sounded a bit wistful as he summed up its significance: "This is about as close to knighting somebody as you can get."

Honorees

The honorees at the Kennedy Center's 2004 national celebration of the arts are:

Warren Beatty: actor, producer, writer and director

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee: husband-and-wife actors, writers and producers

Elton John: singer and composer

Joan Sutherland: soprano

John Williams: composer and conductor

Awards on TV

What: The 27th annual Kennedy Center Honors

When: Tuesday, Dec. 21, at 9 p.m. on CBS

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