IT IS ALWAYS ONE OF WASHINGTON’S MOST STAR-STUDDED AFFAIRS, but earlier this month there seemed to be more stars—and studs—than usual at the annual White House Correspondents’ dinner. Wild Palms’ Dana Delany, Hearts Afire’s Markie Post, and Michael Douglas noshed salmon and filet mignon at the Washington Hilton Hotel and elbowed their way through the crush that included fellow celebs Richard Dreyfuss, Stephen Stills and Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Oh, yeah, Bill and Hillary and Al and Tipper were there too.

And then she entered. Wearing an off-the-shoulder, while-satin gown and exuding that slightly cross-eyed charisma, she calmly navigated a moving sea of videocam lights and popping flashbulbs. Bringing conversations to a halt. Making forks drop and heads turn. In fact, wherever she went that night, whether to the Newsweek cocktail reception beforehand or the exclusive post-dinner party thrown by Vanity Fair, it seemed that everyone—politicians, magazine editors and New York City celebs alike—wanted desperately to get a glimpse, a touch, even (oh, God!) a few words with this 51-year-old woman from Brooklyn with the looong fingernails and no college degree. Ladies and Gentlemen and Leaders of the Free World…Barbra Streisand!

Barbra has had quite a few loves in her life—Elliot Gould, Jon Peters, Don Johnson—but now the nation’s capital appears to be the object of her desire. And the feeling seems mutual. Al a time when there are more Hollywood hotshots in Washington than you can shake an autograph book at (see page 71), Streisand is Tinseltown’s preeminent ambassador.

It’s not hard to see why. With an estimated personal fortune of more than $100 million, she is roughly as rich as some moguls (Mike Medavoy, Peter Guber) who jet in to push their liberal causes. But what really sets her apart is the intensity with which she has focused on Washington. This is a woman who does her homework; her apartment in New York City, according to The Wall Street Journal, contains stacks of books about Thomas Jefferson that she has been dipping into as part of this current political plunge. Meanwhile, her appearance at the White House Correspondents’ dinner was only part of a full schedule of seven busy days in the capital as Washington’s newest and busiest Mall rat.

Consider her itinerary: On May 3 she had dinner at D.C.’s exclusive new restaurant, Citronelle, with Attorney General Janet Reno, where they talked about women’s issues. The next day she attended House Armed Services Committee hearings on gays in the military. That night she attended the Democratic Congressional Dinner with Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala as guests of Sen. Barbara Boxer. She also managed to fill up her days with trips to Washington’s newly opened Holocaust Museum, a tour of FBI headquarters and a day trip to nearby Charlottesville, Va., where she scouted for antiques and real estate.

Nor was that Streisand’s first postelection foray into and around the corridors of power. In late March, eight weeks after her smashing performance at Landover, Md.’s 18,752-seat Capital Centre for the presidential gala concert, she swept back into town for the Gridiron dinner and spent that night in the Queen’s bedroom in the family quarters of the White House.

But is she really thinking of making Washington her home? Barbra already has more than enough places to store the Early American knickknacks and that colonial candle lantern that she bought at antique shops along the route to Charlottesville: a ranch in Malibu, a duplex apartment on Manhattan’s Central Park West and a lavish house in Beverly Hills. She did check out property in Virginia, but then, says a friend, “Barbra looks at a lot of places and never buys.” This much 15 certain: She caused a commotion wherever she went, in town and out. “It was fun,” says one D.C. insider, “watching these people who were flustered by her presence trying to act cool.” And Barbra? By all accounts, she lost her cool at the National Archives, bubbling enthusiastically after seeing the original Emancipation Proclamation. Normally. Streisand—possibly the most powerful woman in Hollywood—is remembered for her will of iron and her willingness to play with the corners of your mind. Composer Paul Williams once said that working with Streisand was “a little like trying to have a picnic at the end of a runway.” But she has regarded this past month, says a friend, as “a break from work, a time to relax—even what she considers a vacation.”

What’s going on under those famous blond bangs? Does a new. and lighter, heart beat beneath Barbra’s $2,000 Donna Karan suits? The reclusive superstar who once avoided journalists is suddenly taking public risks of every kind. Larry Kramer, the author of The Normal Heart (an AIDS play that Streisand plans to direct in a film version for Columbia this year), thinks he knows the answer. “There’s a greater maturity in her life,” he says. “And it shows in her work and career. She’s achieved a kind of eminence, and she doesn’t allow small things to bother her anymore.”

Small things like death threats. Streisand still remembers vividly the day in 1967 when, in the midst of filming Funny Girl, she took lime off to appear at a glorious nighttime free concert in Central Park. What her fans didn’t know was that Streisand had received a threat against her life, and “it did scare me,” she said later. “I forgot my words, in front of 135,000 people. I went blank.” Streisand finished the performance, but it would be nearly 20 years before she sang on a public stage again.

She hardly stopped working, though. Streisand’s about-to-be-released Back to Broadway is her 50th album. And since she made her movie debut in Funny Girl in 1968, she has acted in a total of 15 films, learning along the way from the best producers and directors how to work, respectively, the phone and the camera. In 1991 she briefly emerged from her seclusion to publicize The Prince of Tides, which she directed and starred in opposite Nick Nolte. The movie was a box office hit and wound up being nominated for seven Oscars. In the prestigious Best Director category, however, Streisand was snubbed by the Academy in favor of five male directors, most of whose pictures had not been as successful. Privately she was deeply wounded, but publicly she was steadfast. Resistance to women directors was something she and her peers would have to deal with. “We’re still fighting it,” she said. “Men are allowed to have passion and commitment for their work, but a woman is allowed that feeling for a man, but not her work.”

Not the kind of quotation that leaps into Bartlett’s—but for Streisand, who had so rarely spoken out in public, it was a veritable filibuster. And there was much more to come. This past September, the woman who had for all practical purposes granted no interviews between the hippie and the yuppie eras, sat courtside at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in New York City and jawed to reporters about her new pal, Andre Agassi. “He’s very evolved, more than his linear years,” she said somewhat mysteriously. “He plays like a Zen master.”

The press gave her a drubbing for that casual remark, but instead of retreating behind a wall of publicists, she seemed undaunted by the attack. Two months later, appearing at a benefit concert for AIDS Project L.A., Streisand decried Colorado’s recent passage of an amendment to the state constitution that would deny rights to gays—and called for nothing less than a boycott of the state.

At the White House Correspondents’ dinner, surrounded by press, she was a model of relaxed composure on the arm of her ex-boyfriend, ice-cream heir Richard Baskin. Smiling and autographing dinner programs, she chatted easily with fellow guests, including Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There is no doubt that Streisand is making friends and influencing people. The question is, does she have an agenda beyond her concern for AIDS and child-related issues? Does she covet power and harbor secret ambitions?

One of Streisand’s cronies says that “Barbra might consider an honorary commission or something.” She herself is incensed at the suggestion that she is in the early stages of a personal power grab. “What do I have to do? Leave the country or stay in my house?” she groused to a friend. “I can’t be a tourist? I can’t meet the Attorney General of the United States without getting flak?”

Certainly she has not exactly phased herself out of show business. Her voice has never been better (“I always thought my top note was a D, and now I’m hitting an E flat,” she told The Wall Street Journal), Back to Broadway has gone platinum solely on the strength of advance orders, and she continues to direct.

But the truth is, she already has the kind of power that even President Clinton respects—the power to raise mountains of money. Ever since a 1986, $5,000-a-couple fundraiser on her Malibu lawn, at which she sang 17 songs and netted $1.5 million (the concert that marked her first public performance since the death-threat incident), she has been avidly courted by Democratic candidates. Then there is he singer’s nonprofit Barbra Streisand Foundation, formed in 1987, which has to date made some $7 million in donations to charities worldwide. And she’s pretty quick with her personal checkbook too. The day after the L.A. riots in 1992, Streisand sent an unsolicited $50,000 check to the First AME Church in South Central L.A. to help set up a first-aid center and shelter.

What is motivating this most motivated of women? Perhaps it is memories of the way she was. As a child, she recently told The Wall Street Journal, “I slept in the bed with my mother, and my brother slept on a cot. We didn’t have a living room, and I used to hide under the dining room table a lot.” That snapshot from childhood, she says, is the key to understanding her new involvement. “People talk a lot about Clinton losing his father.” she told the Journal. “I totally identify with that because I lost my father [who died] when I was an infant.”

Arthur Laments, who directed Barbra in her first Broadway show, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, in 1962, and has remained a friend, says there’s really no great mystery to this New Streisand. “She has matured incredibly. She has moved outside of herself,” he says. “She has tremendous passion for the people and the causes she believes in. She’s constantly changing, yet she stays the same.” And that, he adds, “is why we remain so fascinated with her.”