Clarence Streit turned 82 and was given a birthday party Saturday night at the Phillips Collection, that elegant gallery that houses the tremendous Renoir of the boating party and much else.

"I remember the first meeting of Federal Union here in Washington," said James MacLaughlin, curator of the collection, "in this gallery in 1945 or 1946."

He was at the party early to see to it (as one guest irreverently said) nobody stole the little Delacroix.

"It's out being cleaned," he said, when someone discovered it missing in spite of MacLaughlin.

At blue-flame political receptions, everybody is revved up to mount the barricades or dismantle the Bastille or both, but this reception was not like that.

It had an air of hope - Federal Union, which Streit founded after the idea occurred to him 45 years ago, urges the political federation of freedom-loving nations along the lines of the federal union of our American states - but it was the sort of hope that the world will eventually get better and stop being so blind. It was not at all like an intense campaign to get some damn canned music off the bus system, or an Action Now program to get a biologist out of a prision in some outlandish nation.

The Union still hopes, as it has since before World War II, that a conference will be called to which the democracies of the world can send delegates to see what can be done to boster their democratic strength - a unified defense system and money system, among other things.

Streit said he was sometimes discouraged, if he thought of the future and how far his idea of federation still had to go. But if he thought of the past, and how bizarre the notion had once seemed, he felt better, because a certain amount of progress is unarguable.

His book, and the gradual word-of-mouth discussion of his ideas, is often credited with preparing the way for NATO in 1949.

Charles Foltz, a former foreign editor of U.S. News and World Report, and not a Union member, said he thought Streit's arguments had much to do with the successful establishment of the North Atlantic alliance, a limited or embryonic form of the federation that Streit has always dreamed of.

"Weak," said Dr. Miller Upton, the Union's chief executive officer and former president of Beloit College, "the chances of federation now are weak, not because the idea is wrong, but because it has not been pushed hard enought."

Streit and his wife, Jeanne Lafrance (his book, "Union Now," published on the eve of the invasion of Poland, is dedicated to his wife: pas san toi - not without thee) mingled with the guests and held court sitting on little steel folding chairs. Jeanne Streit had a crown of snowy hair, Clarence wore the pink bladness of a life well spent.

"I would like to talk with you about nasturitums," he said to a fellow," and ask if . . ."

"Excuse me," said Patricia Chapman, executive secretary of the Union at 1975 Connecticut, whose enthusiasm for nasturtiums appeared to be slight, "we need you in the receiving line."

Streit, who had foolishly imagined he could do as he liked at his birthday party reflected on the nature of practical power and said:

"Of course there is always somebody." (Somebody ready to make you stop talking about nasturtiums, when you are all set to do so.) He recalled (despite the tugging) that when he covered the old League of Nations for The New York Times, nobody ever wrote to say something was well done or had been helpful, but they always wrote if you made a mistake.

"If you alluded to a letter from Washington to Jay," he said, in his last moment before being towed off to the receiving line, "there would always be somebody to say - and they would be right, of course, which made it worse - no, it was a letter from Jay to Washington."

Kay Halle, a Union director, had plowed through the snow in black velvet and white boots to get to the party, supporting five ropes of pearls around her neck, and was sure the cake was inadequate:

"It will never feed all these people," she said.

A young fellow from Charlottesville brought her a piece which she regarded for several seconds, mindful of the probable shortage to come, before eating it bravely. Like the loaves and fishes, the cake held out and there was still some half an hour after the party was supposed to be over.

Halle is perhaps best known for her successful agitation to get Winston Churchill made honorary citizen of America by special act of Congress (John Kennedy had thought it would be unconstitutional, but eventually learned there was no point arguing with Halle). She waved away a question about Churchill:

"I was so young then. I was too young (on her frequent visits with Churchill in England). Imagine the opportunity I had, hearing Lloyd George and Churchill discussing the origins of the first World War. But I was too young to take advantage of that opportunity."

"You are not very old, even now," someone said.

Foltz, like many of the guests who were past their first flush of youth, sat against the wall where the wonderful Daumier of the revolutionist used to hang, and said he thought the crowd was curious, since there weren't many middle-aged people present:

"I guess you saw the beautiful Oriental girl," he said. "No, not that one. Here she comes now. Why is it that everybody is either a beautiful young person or an old crock?"

"We are not old crocks," said a fellow to him. "We are not children, but we are not old crocks."

"I suppose not," said Foltz, glancing at his silk tie sprinkled with scarlet roosters ( he always had a feeling for Paris).

Streit was nominated for the Nobel Prize not long ago by Nelson Rockefeller. Other Streit supporters over the years have included Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey, Gerald Ford, Mark Hatfield.

Interesting bedfellows.

Streit once said he knew that many who supported his ideas of federal union did not go all the way with his thoughts, and the more honor to them for supporting him when they thought he was only 51 per cent right.

Streit himself alluded to the complexity of being "right," and recalled the time he was a buck private on a troop ship. He was on watch, with a loaded gun, with orders to slam the bulkhead door if the ship were fired on and one compartment began to leak.

"Shook to kill, if necessary," he said, "so that all the men on one side, at least, might get up the gangway."

He never knew, he said, how he would have behaved if he had had to slam the door and condemn the ones on the wrong side to certain death.

"They were not enemies, they were my own outfit."

Moral choices, he went on, are not always either clear-cut or easy, and yet endless damage can be done if they are not made and made correctly.

He cited his watched in the hold of the ship as an example of the power of one individual, and said that whether we notice it or not, the world runs on the decisions of ordinary men; so that nobody should ever say his own voice was inconsequential.

The Streits were given tickets for a Geneva vacation and some cash to buy a trout once they get there. (It is a puritan sort of town, but expensive.)

Streit's face does not have deep wrinkles, and it comes (a young women said) of being sweet all the way through. Never did get to talk about his nasturtiums, of course. No man is really free.

Rep. John B. Breckinridge (D-Ky.) said the important thing is to spend a life on something that lasts longer than a life, and he reckoned Streit had been doing that.