By Patrick Rogers
May 12, 1997 12:00 PM

THEY EMBRACED DURING THE Pledge of Allegiance, held hands through the smoked-duck-and-mango appetizer and nuzzled as waiters served filet mignon and macadamia-encrusted salmon. They strutted and vamped, hugged and whispered. And by the time the plates were cleared at Washington’s annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 26, Ellen DeGeneres and her lover, Anne Heche, had turned a but-toned-down banquet for some 2,500 into a capital coming-out party.

Not since the British arrived with torches in 1814 have out-of-towners brought such heat to a White House-related function. “Oh! I thought this was all for you,” Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan joked to his new bride, NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, as photographers, who had lenses only for DeGeneres, 39, and Heche, 27, jockeyed for position. “They lit up the room,” says openly gay lobbyist Elizabeth Birch of the Human Rights Campaign. But the display made other guests fume: A “freak show,” the wife of a Cabinet member reportedly said.

It certainly was a spectacle. The moment DeGeneres and Heche arrived at the Washington Hilton in a limo, groups of autograph-hunting teenagers chased them down the stairs to the security checkpoint. To escape the crowd, the couple took refuge in a ladies room, providing a photo op for a female photographer who had followed them.

Once safely seated at table 119 with the other guests of Vanity Fair, including George Clooney and Bianca Jagger, DeGeneres, wearing a blue pantsuit, and Heche, in a clingy turquoise mini-dress, chattered and chain-smoked. They paid intermittent attention to speeches by Bill Clinton (he touched on the fund-raising controversy by joking that Chelsea’s departure for college will make another White House bedroom available) and comic Jon Stewart (he called DeGeneres’s revelations “an elaborate ruse to keep Larry King from hitting on her”). Asked if she liked the comedy, DeGeneres said, “Yeah, it’s good. It’s funny.”

As for her and Heche’s behavior, not everyone was amused. “I had the impression they were putting on some kind of act,” said a Washington columnist. “But this kind of thing can backfire in Washington.” And elsewhere. After spending the night at the posh Jefferson Hotel, the women returned to Hollywood, where the jury is still out on how their relationship will affect their careers. As for DeGeneres and Heche, they’ve had their say. “She’s done her press and has no comment,” says Heche’s publicist Simon Halls. “I do know that she had fun, though.”