WASHINGTON - "I'm the president, but he's The Boss."

With those words, President Obama greeted Bruce Springsteen last night at a White House reception before the iconic rocker was lauded with Kennedy Center Honors along with Robert De Niro, comic genius Mel Brooks, jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, and opera singer Grace Bumbry.

A surprise list of stars performed as part of the nation's highest honors for those who have defined American culture through the arts. It's an awards show that opens with the national anthem and spans jazz, opera, movies, and rock 'n roll - part of a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy.

Jon Stewart opened the tribute to Springsteen, recounting his theory on how The Boss came to be.

"I'm not a music critic, nor historian, nor archivist," Stewart said. "But I am from New Jersey. And so I can tell you what I believe. . . . I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby."

As the story goes, Stewart said Dylan and Brown abandoned the child on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the child was raised by "a pack of feral vaudevillians. That child is Bruce Springsteen."

Stewart had Michelle Obama doubled over laughing. And The Boss, seated next to her, even cracked a smile.

John Mellencamp sang "Born in the U.S.A.," Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland did "Glory Days" with a country twist, Melissa Ethridge rocked the house with "Born To Run," and Sting ended the musical tribute with "The Rising," with help from a choir.

About 300 guests - including Jack Black, Edward Norton, Matthew Broderick, Ben Stiller, Martin Scorsese, and Philip Seymour Hoffman - celebrated the group with a reception in the East Room of the White House before the show.

"These performers are indeed the best," Obama said. "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 Saturday night at a State Department dinner as different from 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."

The show will air nationwide Dec. 29 on CBS.

The honors were heartfelt for De Niro, too. Meryl Streep opened with a tribute to her friend, who she said was exacting with details as an actor, director and producer.

Later, Aretha Franklin recounted career highlights of Bumbry,the first black opera singer to appear at Germany's Bayreuth.Later, Jacqueline Kennedy invited Bumbry to sing at the White House.

Bumbry, 72, said returning to meet Obama for the award was the highest honor she has received.

Carol Burnett led a series of toasts at a more private celebration Saturday at a dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Several of the honorees, Clinton said, have been at the forefront of cultural diplomacy. Brubeck, who turned 89 yesterday, was sent abroad in the Cold War, she said, to serve as an ambassador with his music in countries teetering between democracy and communism.

Springsteen played a concert in East Berlin for 160,000 people 16 months before the Berlin Wall fell - a concert many Germans remember 20 years later, Clinton said.

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 was special to receive the honor during the Obama administration. He said he would whisper something in the president's ear about the need for more federal funding for the arts.