President Barack Obama (R) claps for actress Barbara Cook (L), singer Neil… (Brendan Smialowski / EPA )
Reporting from Washington — — Washington turned off the rancor and partisan fighting on Sunday to show it can still unite behind something: A Neil Diamond sing-along.
The button-down crowd at the Kennedy Center loosened up the black ties for a rousing rendition of Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," as the power pop, camp-inclined performer and songwriter was officially branded a national cultural treasure at the Kennedy Center Honors gala.
Meryl Streep, jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Broadway star Barbara Cook joined Diamond in the lineup of honorees at Washington's annual salute to the performing arts. Each gazed on from the balcony, seated next to the president and first lady, as their famous friends and admirers put on a show for them.
PHOTOS: The 34th Kennedy Center Honors
The gala, which was taped Sunday and will be televised on CBS on Dec. 27, has become the standard for delightfully surprising but far-from-random artistic pairings.
Faux newsman Stephen Colbert and earnest troubadour James Taylor paid homage to Ma, as did Elmo in a tux. ("Tonight we celebrate the greatest living cellist," Colbert declared. "We will cellibrate, if you will.)
Sarah Jessica Parker and husband Matthew Broderick, both film stars with stage chops, introduced a mash-up of the Cook songbook performed by Patti LuPone and others. Bill Cosby riffed on Rollins before Herbie Hancock, Ravi Coltrane and others jammed. Robert De Niro and British comedian Tracey Ullman sent up their friend Streep, ribbing her nearly bomb-free movie career.
"Is there anything Meryl is crap at?" Ullman said.
Smokey Robinson and a crowd of Red Sox fans bused down from Boston to lead the audience in "Sweet Caroline," a staple before the bottom of the eighth inning at Fenway Park, as well as college bars and showers everywhere. Michelle Obama pumped her fist at the "ba, ba, ba!" and the song's namesake, Caroline Kennedy, joined in.
"Everybody sings to Neil Diamond, no matter how many drinks they've had," the president ad-libbed in a video clip that kicked off the show.
Co-producer George Stevens Jr. said the show aims to deliver a series of surprise moments. "We don't give people a program. Each person that's introduced is from Mars," he explained before the show.
Actually, many hailed from planet Hollywood. The Kennedy Center Honors has long been one of the few chances for the wonks and grunts of Washington to bask in Hollywood's glamour and, perhaps, for Hollywood types to put on their serious faces.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew back from Myanmar to host a welcome reception and dinner Saturday night at the State Department. Former President Bill Clinton toasted Rollins at the event, recalling the feeling of discovering Rollins improvisational music as a young teenager and pouring through Downbeat magazines hoping "sooner or later I would find an article that will explain to me what I just heard."
"His music can bend your mind," Clinton said. "I'm just a fan."
Nora Ephron, whom Streep portrayed in the film "Heartburn," praised the actress' portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the upcoming film "The Iron Lady" and warned Secretary Clinton that she would be next. "It's inevitable," Ephron said. "Someday you will see her in a movie about your life and discover the truth that she is better at being you than you are."
Amid all the accolades and praise, Streep, 62, who has received 16 Academy Award nominations, winning twice, quipped that events made her "feel a little like Tom Sawyer going to his own funeral."
All of this year's honorees are still going strong. Cook, 84, who first made her mark in the 1956 debut of Leonard Bernstein's musical "Candide," continues to perform. So does 81-year-old Rollins, who has explored calypso rhythms, pioneered the piano-less trio and came early to civil rights activism on his 1958 "Freedom Suite."
Ma, 56, has ascended to classical music's current ambassador of popular culture and the go-to musician for public occasions in need of gravitas. After playing for eight presidents (starting at age 7), funerals, Sept. 11 memorials, Obama's inauguration and "Sesame Street," for good measure, Ma likens himself to Waldo, popping up wherever music is played.
Diamond is experiencing something of a burst of belated critical appreciation. The 70-year-old was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this spring, an achievement hailed as evidence of his genre-busting songwriting talent.
The man behind "Cherry, Cherry," "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" and the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" has been embraced by the "Glee" generation and launched a bumper crop of tribute bands.
He was wholly embraced by the crowd of politicos, which included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the surging GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista.
Gingrich declined to talk shop before the show, noting only that he hoped to return to the gala in the future. In what capacity, he did not say.
"No politics tonight," Gingrich said.
PHOTOS: The 34th Kennedy Center Honors