Rarely is the president of the United States, nestled in his box, the center of attention at the Kennedy Center Honors, the annual awards ceremony that brings a carousel of celebrities, musicians and actors to the stage to pay tribute to lifetime achievements in the arts.
But such was the case on Sunday night, when Robert De Niro, celebrating Billy Crystal’s career, marveled at all the honoree had packed into his career.
“You’re only 75,” Mr. De Niro said. “That means you’re just about six years away from being the perfect age to be president.”
As President Biden grinned, waved and ruefully shook his finger at Mr. De Niro from the presidential box, members of the audience leaped to their feet with applause — some to gawk at Mr. Biden’s reaction from the front row of the balcony.
It was the only suggestion of politics in an apolitical, if quintessentially Washington event that sees throngs of dignitaries and politicians gather each year to pay tribute to the arts.
On Sunday, the Kennedy Center honored artists who not only revolutionized their genres but transcended them: Billy Crystal, the actor and comedian; Barry Gibb, the musician and songwriter who rose to fame as the eldest member of the Bee Gees; Renée Fleming, the opera singer; Queen Latifah, the rapper, singer and actress; and Dionne Warwick, the singer.
Ms. Warwick, who has performed five times at the Kennedy Center and previously appeared at the honors gala to perform tributes to two separate honorees, said her reaction to learning that she would be honored was: “Finally, it’s here!”
“It’s a privilege to wear this,” she said, gesturing to the signature rainbow medallion given to each honoree.
One of the quirks of these Honors is that the cast of musicians, actors and singers paying tribute to the honorees are kept secret from the attendees, and even the honorees themselves. On Sunday, a nonstop series of bold-lettered names descended on the stage, including Missy Elliott, Jay Leno, Meg Ryan and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The evening blazed through a Broadway-style medley toasting to Mr. Crystal by Mr. Miranda; a showstopping rendition of “Alfie” by Cynthia Erivo, the Tony and Grammy-award winning singer and actress; tributes to Queen Latifah by Kerry Washington and Rev. Stef and Jubilation, the choir Queen Latifah’s mother had belonged to. It was capped by a stirring rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Tituss Burgess, Christine Baranski and Susan Graham, and a medley of Bee Gees songs by Ariana DeBose.
For Mr. Crystal, the Kennedy Center conjured the Lower East Side onstage, projecting a likeness of Katz’s Delicatessen as a backdrop for Ms. Ryan, Mr. Crystal’s most famous co-star, in their famous scene together.
“This scene really came naturally to me,” Ms. Ryan said, to laughter. “I’ve actually never been around anyone who made faking an orgasm easier.”
For Mr. Gibb, musicians including Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton and Paul McCartney on Sunday reflected on his extensive list of songs — more than 1,000, with tracks in different genres, like “Islands in the Stream” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” and the Bee Gees hits that made him and his brothers famous.
“He taught us how to walk,” Lionel Richie said in a prerecorded video interview, as the famous guitar hook in “Stayin’ Alive” pulsed through the theater.
“Kindness and understanding — we seem to be losing that,” Mr. Gibb said. “And we need to grab it back as quickly as possible.”
Ms. Fleming, the soprano known as “the people’s diva,” said that she was grateful for the opportunity to highlight the arts.
“Artists really can change hearts and minds and we’re allowed to wrestle with difficult problems and life and death,” Ms. Fleming said. “Because I’m in the opera world, we all die in opera.”
But she allowed ahead of the show that she was experiencing a strange reverse form of stage fright. Performing on the world’s biggest stages may be second nature to her, but, she said, “The thing that scares me is sitting in the box!”
Queen Latifah, for her part, appeared prepared to soak up the experience. At the State Department dinner on Saturday night, she told attendees how she would “never forget” the moment. And she appeared visibly moved when Ms. Elliott regaled members of the audience on Sunday with the memory of Queen Latifah on television declaring “Ladies first” in her feminist anthem of the same name, at a time when “we kept hearing, ‘It’s a man’s world.’”
“She was saying, ‘You will respect me,’” Ms. Elliott said. “‘I will be a leader. I will be a provider. I will be an inspiration to many.’”
The show will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 27.