The young man looked quite earnest. "What do you think of the MX missile?" he asked Adam Yarmolinsky, former counselor of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

"I still believe the MX is not likely to happen," Yarmolinsky said. "It's such a technological monstrosity. . . "

Yarmonlinsky sat in a delicate chair perched on a small stage. The stage was one of four edges of a platform, divided into separate booths, each decorated with a Christmas tree and a sign, such as "World Peace and Disarmament," and containing a row of experts ready to chat about "global issues" with any of the guests who could thrust through the crowd and talk.

Billed as "conversations under the trees," it was a sort of intellectual smorgasbord. New Directions, a citizens lobby trying to raise money and gain members, sponsored it as an alternative to the usual wine and cheese mingling familiar to supporters of nonprofit organizations. For $35, a guest could freely sample the wit and wisdom of a row of experts, most of them known for a liberal or at least moderate point of view.

Many of them also had a "former" in front of their titles, which may be an indication of the way things are going these days. Elliot Richardson: former attorney general, former special representative to the Law of the Sea Conference. Paul Warnke: former director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. John Gilligan, former governor of Ohio, former director of the Agency for International Development. Dick Clark: former senator from Iowa and former special ambassador for refugee programs. Charles W. Yost: former ambassador to the United Nations.

There were others among the guests. In one corner, Sen. John Culver (D-Ind.) stood chatting privately. Both were victims of the recent election. "The fallen heroes," noted Sanford Gottlieb, executive director of New Directions, whose 14,000 members he described as those interested in civil liberties and international affairs. The same constituency, he agreed, that would be produced from the George McGovern mailing list.

Indeed, Sen. McGovern (D-S.D.) himself was there as a guest, surrounded by well-wishers distressed about his recent defeat. He would like, McGovern told one small group, to start "a clearinghouse sort of like what [conservative direct-mail king Richard] Viguerie operates," for the opposite political view. It was still a plan, he said, and he didn't know if it would work. "It's hard to get people to do things out of idealistic reasons rather than hate and fear," he told the young adults hanging on his every word.

Meanwhile the "conversations under the trees" concept was breaking down somewhat. The accoustics in the Salon de las Americas in the ornate Organization of American States building were not well suited to dozens of concurrent serious exchanges. Being liberals, they tried to adjust; some groups moved to a corner, and some speakers climbed off their chairs and sat on the edge of the stage.

"That's Elliot Richardson," whispered a woman to her young daughter. "He's from Boston. I met him once at a party."

Werner Erhard, chief guru of est and the Hunger Project, questioned Gilligan, sitting on the "World Food and Population" stage, on the subject of hunger. "What are the current figures with respect to world hunger?" he asked.

"I attended a meeting in Ottawa a few weeks ago," said Gilligan, who is also chairman of New Directions. ". . . after seven good years we had a bad crop year last year . . . one more bad year and we'll be down the bare boards, globally speaking. . ."

A woman queried Warnke about possible nominees for secretary of state in the Reagan administration.

"The problem with Al Haig is that he's a second-rater," said Warnke. "Like George Schultz -- a solid B, not an A-minus, a B. But B is a passing grade. I just hope Reagan looks around more and gets more good guys in there. It's possible, I'm hopeful. The guy is not a freak, you have to understand that. And you have to support the man once he's in there."

Mary Catherine Bateson, Margaret Mead's daughter and the dean of faculty at Amherst College, presented the first annual World Citizen Award named after her mother, one of the founders of New Directions, to Perdita Huston. aHuston, the first woman regional director of the Peace Corps and the author of two books about rural women in Third World countries, was on an official trip to Africa and was unable to pick up the award herself. w

There was a flavor of optimism despite the ghosts of liberalism past that peopled the room. "Our arguments [about disarmament] are so rational that if we can't beat them we deserve what we get," said Yost. "It's hard to demagogue a sensible position," agreed Warnke, who was sitting next to him.

"We just came through an election," Gilligan told the crowd. "At least I think we got through. An election in which the power of organized groups impacting on the electoral process was all too evident. Whatever they can do, we can do better -- if we just try."