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WASHINGTON -- With a little help from Carol Burnett, a new star from the hit TV show "Glee" and other top entertainers, political Washington is saluting five of the nation's top artists with the Kennedy Center Honors this weekend.
A surprise list of star performers will honor Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro and comic genius Mel Brooks Sunday during a show attended by President Barack Obama and other power players from Washington and Hollywood.
Also receiving the honors -- which recognize individuals who have defined American culture through the arts as a living memorial to John F. Kennedy -- are jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck and opera singer Grace Bumbry.
About 300 guests, including Jack Black, Edward Norton, Matthew Broderick, Ben Stiller, Martin Scorsese, Sting, Philip Seymour Hoffman were at a reception in the East Room of the White House.
"These performers are indeed the best," Obama said at the gathering. "They are also living reminders of a single truth -- and I'm going to steal a line from Michelle here -- the arts are not somehow apart from our national life, the arts are the heart of our national life."
Springsteen, 60, described the award he received on Saturday night at a State Department dinner as different than other accolades.
"We worked really hard for our music to be part of American life and our fans' lives," he said. "So it's an acknowledgment that you've kind of threaded your way into the culture in a certain way. It's satisfying."
Obama said, "Only a handful of people have tapped the full power of music to tell the American story. ... One of those people is Bruce Springsteen. ... I'm the president, but he's the boss."
The show will air nationwide Dec. 29 on CBS.
Melissa Ethridge said she will perform for Springsteen, singing "Born to Run." She said she first met Springsteen at a Beverly Hills restaurant and he recognized her.
"I fainted, well I didn't faint, but I would have fainted," she said.
She said Springsteen is "the most delightful human being" and the epitome of a great performer.
"He's got it all."
State Department officials would not say whether security for the events has been heightened after a Virginia couple recently sneaked into a White House State dinner. The gala is Obama's first big event since Micheale and Tareq Salahi slipped past White House security Nov. 24. The Secret Service runs security for Kennedy Center events the president attends, and everyone who enters must have a ticket that will be checked at the door.
On the red carpet, Katie Couric said she talked to the Salahis quite a bit at the dinner and joked that everyone is going to be on the lookout for party crashers.
"I think security is a little tighter here," she said.
Burnett led a series of toasts at a more private celebration for the honorees Saturday after a dinner for about 200 hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Several of the honorees, Clinton said, have been at the forefront of cultural diplomacy. Brubeck, who turned 89 on Sunday, was sent abroad in the Cold War, she said, to serve as an ambassador with his music in countries teetering between democracy and communism.
And Springsteen played a rock concert in East Berlin for 160,000 people just 16 months before the Berlin Wall fell -- a concert many Germans remember 20 years later, Clinton said.
"In every time and every culture, artists have lit the way toward progress," she said. "They've helped to provide a common language, a fabric that weaves us together as human beings."
Then there's the more irreverent arts. Even the mention of Brooks' number "Springtime for Hitler" from "The Producers" was enough to draw chuckles.
Brooks, 83, said it's special to receive the honor during the Obama administration. He said he'll whisper something in the president's ear about the need for more federal funding for the arts.
"I think when all my awards go to e-Bay, it will be the last," Brooks said of the Kennedy Center medallion. "That's how much I treasure it."
Of Brooks, the President said:
Unfortunately, many of the punch lines that have defined Mel Brooks' success cannot be repeated here. (Laughter.) I was telling him that I went to see Blazing Saddles -- (laughter) -- when I was 10. And he pointed out that I think, according to the ratings, I should not have been allowed in the theater. (Laughter.) That's true. I think I had a fake ID. (Laughter and applause.) But the statute of limitations has passed. (Laughter.)
Watch the video here:
Many workers and guests were even more gaga Saturday over seeing Matthew Morrison from TV's "Glee." They recognized him as Mr. Schuster, the high school teacher and glee club coach from the Fox show.
Morrison said he was elated to visit Washington to help honor Brooks.
"I like crossing the line every now and then, and he's kind of the master of crossing that line, being a little offensive at times," Morrison said. "The man is a living legend."
Journalist Barbara Walters sat with Clinton and turned heads when she arrived as actor Frank Langella's date.
Jon Stewart was seated at Springsteen's table, along with Caroline Kennedy.
Former President Bill Clinton, a saxophone player, offered a moving toast for Brubeck. He said he first saw Brubeck's quartet in concert when he was about 15 years old and was "utterly captivated."
Later when Clinton invited Brubeck to the White House in 1994, the musician quizzed the president on what songs besides "Take Five" he liked from Brubeck's album, "Time Out," which was released 50 years ago this month. He even asked Clinton if he could hum the bridge to "Blue Rondo a la Turk." And Clinton passed the test.
A week later, Brubeck sent the president an autographed picture and chart from the song.
"It hangs in the music room of my home today," Clinton said. "It hung in the White House every single day I was there."
Obama said his father took him a Brubeck show in Honolulu in 1971, and that he's "been a jazz fan ever since."
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