The president paid tribute to the honorees and, in keeping with his custom, teased them.
"The recipients for 2001 make quite a collection," Bush said at a White House reception. "This year's honorees can carry a tune. And then there's Jack."
Bush has not had as close a relationship with the entertainment industry as his predecessor, President Clinton. But those attending a White House reception before the honors gala Sunday evening included Warren Beatty and his wife, Annette Bening; Candice Bergen, Bo Derek, Carol Burnett, Michael Douglas, Lorne Michaels, Lynn Redgrave-Clarke and Oprah Winfrey.
Several Clinton associates and friends were on hand too, including one-time White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty, Vernon Jordan and Terry McAuliffe, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
The president and Laura Bush held the reception for the honorees cited for career achievement, and other artists and officials before the 24th annual gala at the nearby entertainment hall.
In a tribute to Nicholson at the honors ceremony, Douglas said: "Jack, it all comes down to this: You are the screen actor of our generation."
Honoring Van Cliburn, Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said, "At a moment when our nation is again focused on just how much we value freedom, we turn our eyes toward a true American hero."
In her tribute to Jones, Winfrey said: "He just seems to walk in the light. Whenever anybody's with him, you feel no shadows."
Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles teamed up to play "Let the Good Times Roll" at the end of Jones' salute.
Other notables among the nearly 400 guests at the White House included Walter Cronkite; director Nora Ephron; singer Robert Goulet; Kenneth Barr, the mayor of West Hollywood; Variety magazine columnist Army Archerd; Queen Noor of Jordan; and the CEOs of CBS Television, Marriott, New York Life Insurance Co., Boeing Co., and the Coca-Cola Co.
Contrary to past practice, the Bush administration barred reporters and photographers from the reception. Journalists heard his speech through nearby loudspeakers.
"You're each here so that America can recognize your great gifts and the ways that you have used them," Bush told the honorees.
Andrews, 66, starred in "The Sound of Music" on the screen and in "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot" on Broadway. She won an Academy Award for the title role in "Mary Poppins."
Bush told the story of President Reagan explaining to his chief of staff why he had not read a briefing book during an international conference. "`The Sound of Music' was on last night," Reagan told the aide. Bush added: "The face and voice of Julie Andrews has that effect on a lot of people."
Pavarotti 66, first gained fame in 1961 in "La Boheme." He has since performed thousands of times in operas and solo concerts, and as part of The Three Tenors with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. Bush told the crowd that Pavarotti had started in the insurance business, and once had a boss who told him, "As a singer, you will undoubtedly die of starvation."
Jones, cited for his "spectacular influence on all facets of American popular music for more than 50 years," has been a composer, arranger, conductor, instrumentalist, record company executive, magazine founder and record, film and television producer. Among the recordings produced by Jones, 68, are "We Are the World" and Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album. He has won 26 Grammy Awards, Bush said.
"For all your marvelous work, America thanks you, Q, and so does W," Bush said.
Nicholson, 64, won Academy Awards for his performances in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Terms of Endearment" and "As Good As It Gets."
Van Cliburn, 67, won the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958. The first musician ever honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City, he went on to found the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Bush noted that the pianist had visited the White House as a guest of President Eisenhower.