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The Kennedy Center Honors - good viewing on Christmas Day

It was John F. Kennedy's spoken hope that this country be remembered, after the dust has blown over our times, not only for our strength but for ''our contribution to the human spirit.''

Those words grace the walls of the Kennedy Center in Washington, and they open this year's edition of ''The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts'' on CBS (Tuesday, Dec. 25 (9-11 p.m.). They seem especially appropriate to this year's selection of honorees and the spirit they represent. Lena Horne, a simmering song stylist, has helped make grit and determination in the face of racial injustice an emblem of the times. Isaac Stern, an unforgettably voiced violinist, has contributed out of his largess of energy and talent to the development of the musical arts in this country. Playwright Arthur Miller, the creator of Willy Loman, represents an intellectual honesty that will not be pushed around. Gian Carlo Menotti, a fountain of operatic oeuvres, is a seminal force in bringing young talent to fruition. Legendary funnyman Danny Kaye is an indulgent uncle to the world's children.

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Somehow, the presenters of this year's honors manage to carry these facts to our door without the usual baggage most televised undertakings of this sort bring with them.

What we have here are short and moving tributes, for the most part, to people who have mattered in our artistic life.

Precious little carnival and glitter clutters up the proceedings. Someone couldn't resist throwing in a gymnastic demonstration by ''America's Sweetheart, '' Olympic gold medal winner Mary Lou Retton, for instance. But, by and large, this evening of tribute sticks to the business at hand.

This business consists largely in sorting through the accomplishments of several distinguished careers - not unlike similar banquets across the country. Only, because we are talking about Arthur Miller, who has already bumped up against tens of thousands of theatergoers with hard truths and melting humanity, this tribute will carry close, personal meaning for many.

Similarly, if you had thought of the Lena Horne of the '40s as your sweetheart, the uncovering of ''the hurt'' that came from being ''a butterfly pinned to a pillar'' and the ''dead years'' in the '50s carries a special impact.

So do her triumphs in the '80s.

The tribute to Miss Horne in this program is especially moving - perhaps because it carries with it the tide of remorse the country feels over a national shame. But the rest of the evening, too, maintains a remarkably high emotional charge.

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Walter Cronkite, disappearing behind his fatherly smile, makes an ideal, unobtrusive host. We are here to celebrate these people for ''their gifts, their grit, their grace,'' he reminds us. He also recalls Tennyson's words: The city is built to music,/ And, therefore, built forever.

It's a fortunate city, the presenters tell us, that includes such citizens as these. Each of these presenters has some close connections to the honoree and, in their own words, vouch for the artistic citizenship they honor.

One hears violinist Itzhak Perlman tell violinist Isaac Stern: ''You have helped me, and I've watched you help others. You play like an angel. But you are honored tonight for being an angel.''

Ying Ruocheng, the Chinese actor who played Willy Loman in that country's production of ''Death of a Salesman,'' tells how Arthur Miller advised the actors: ''Don't try to imitate Americans. You will be most American when you are most Chinese.'' This meant abandoning the troupe's sophisticated Caucasian makeup devices and delving into the ''illusions and dreams'' of the Loman family. The result, the actor recalls, was an opening night ovation from American and Chinese playgoers who stood with tears in their eyes.

Strangely, the readings from Miller's plays produce one of the few arid stretches of the evening.

Not so with the performance of excerpts from Menotti's ''Amahl and the Night Visitors.'' This opera, perhaps the most performed in the world, may not measure up to those that tower in the repertoire, but it conveys its message winningly and well. The scene in which Amahl's mother sings about her child's poverty and hunger - ''Do rich people know . . . do they know . . . do they know?'' - is one of many hints, laced through the evening, that these political times have not been particularly kind to the poor, or to the arts.

More concern than vitriol stirs in these hints, however. Clearly, these artists are the type that make opportunity out of adversity. Lena Horne bloomed again, for instance, after her son, husband, and father died.

But it can have escaped no one's notice that Isaac Stern has fought like a rotund tiger to get support for the arts from government as well as from individuals. His practically single-handed effort pulled off New York State's rescue of Carnegie Hall.

In light of such matters, columnist Art Buchwald tweaks the nose of the President, who sits to camera-right of the honorees, about arts deficits.

Such questions are very much in the background. But the larger business at hand is to dip in, here and there, to American reservoirs of talent and genius - and to recognize that the formula for their success included equal measures of courage and sincerity.

We are on hand to remember Danny Kaye trying to remember that ''the pellet with the poison is in the flagon with the dragon; and the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.'' Then, to see the children of the United Nations school sing with Roberta Peters, ''Let There Be Peace on Earth,'' as Kaye looks on, visibly moved.

Remembering these people, you remember John Kennedy's hope that the American people be remembered, like him, for their ''contribution to the human spirit.''


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