McCarthy has not made it to the White House - a point he made frequently yesterday - but he was king of Canberra for two fey, reflective hours.

The former Democratic senator from Minnesota tickled the fancy of a sellout audience of 400 Australian journalists and their guests at a Canberra National Press Club luncheon in his honor.

He grabbed his audience from the start by wondering, gently, why he had been chosen to speak there. "The previous two Americans who you have had here were Dean Rusk and Richard Nixon . . ." he said.

To an audience that was passionately aggrieved by the policies of both and all who were connected with them, McCarthy declared that he was sympathetic with Spiro Agnew's views on the press: "I agreed with everything he said, but not with his right to say it."

McCarthy has been in Australia for a week as the guest of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, a privately financed organization controlled by the country's foreign policy establishment, whose views of the world are about one degree of thaw to the left of the Cold War.

Lecturing groups of academics and businessmen, he has shied away from the complications of Australian politics except for one devastating moment - which probably set back the State Department's efforts to soothe Australian-American relations by 1,000 friendly phrases.

It came after an Australian journalist pointed out that when Conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was in Washington last month, President Carter called him "John" Fraser.

The questioner also pointed out that President Carter had signed last week an authorization for Continental Airlines to fly between Australia and the United States (a contentious issue with the Fraser government, worried about the competition for Qantas, the Australian airline) without informing the Fraser government.

Was this an example of the United States not caring about Australia or of Carter not being with it, the journalist asked.

McCarthy looked thoughtful and said, "As a matter of fact, I have trouble trying to remember Fraser's last name."

The audience, which has about as much affection for Australia's current prime minister as the Washington press corps had for Nixon in 1974, loved it. Fraser, who is miffed by the lack of prior notice on the airline decision, has made no comment.

Like an Irish Bob Hope, McCarthy waited for the laughter and clapping of his delighted audience to subside before he added one sentence. "On Continental Airlines, I don't think it matters very much - it is probably a case of Carter no realizing that international airlines are very important these days in international relations."

He observed, as a perennial presidential candidate himself, that "it is much harder to stop running for the presidency than starting," but he said nothing more about Carter to the Canberra press gallery. He spent most of his time criticizing American television networks.

At a dinner for academics at the Australian National University last night, however, he said President Carter "is a high-risk president. His trouble is that all governors are just HEW administrators."