Around the room, they were praising Jacob Javits last night. Democratic Governor Hugh Carey of New York even sent a hand-carried letter with his own tribute, lauding "an honest man's efforts on behalf of his constituents and of the citizens of the world."

Javits, the former Republican senator from New York, had to smile as he listened to the accolade.And when his turn to respond came last night at a farewell dinner for him, he described a "unique relationship with Democratic governors and mayors. They've said some glowing things about me," he said, "and then they would endorse my Democratic opponents, absolutely confident that I'd never use it against them." Javits lost his primary race last fall to Alfonse D'amato, who later won the general election too, defeating Democrat Elizabeth Holtzman, and Javits himself, running as the Liberal Party candidate.

Javits shared the spotlight with his wife Marion at a party given by hearst newspaper chain foreign editor John Wallach and his wife Janet in their Foxhall Road home. "One of my oldest and dearest friends," said Wallach in salute, recalling how, as a cub reporter, he first became acquainted with Javits in the late 1960s.

Wallach told of dinners together many a night at Duke Zeibert's restaurant ("My living room for so many years," said Javits later). At one such dinner, Javits talked about entering the California presidential primary against Richard Nixon after Nelson Rockefeller decided not to run.

"The next morning he had second thoughts," Wallach recalled, "But he was a senator who would have been a great president or a great vice president if he had ever tried."

And that was pretty much the tone everyone followed as they rose to pay tribute to Javits:

British jounalist Henry Brondon: "You are considered abroad to be the greatest statesman on the Hill. A lot of Americans are not aware of this."

Sen. Charles Mathias (R-Md.): "I'm reminded of waht Pablo Casals once told me -- that every leaf on every tree is different and what a miracle that is. If that is a miracle, think about people and how unrepeatable and unprecedented they are. That conversation comes to mind when I think of Jack Javits. He's unprecedented and unrepeatable."

Ronald Reagan's press secretary James Brady: "Ronald Reagan has a deep respect for you and would want you to know it."

In fact, Ronald Reagan's regard for Javits drew speculation earlier that he will either be the next ambassador to Mexico or an ambassador-at-large.

Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.), dropping in for cocktails, said he was pushing for the latter because "I want to see him play an important role in the new administration. He has a fertile mind and a very broad-gauged expertise in Europe and Central America."

Somebody else being mentioned as a possible ambassador to Mexico was former Democratic Sen. Richard Stone of Florida. Defeated for a second term last fall, Stone was keeping his own counsel on what, if any jobs the new Reagan administration has offered him. But Mexican Ambassador Hugo Margain cited Stone's proficiency in Spanish as an example of the type of ambassadorial candidate he understood Reagan was looking for.

"It's just something that I heard, that they were looking for high-caliber people fluent in the languages of the countries they would be sent to," said Margain.

Javits was less coy about his future. He said that he was leaving today for Israel, where he will make a speech, and noted that his autobiography, "Javits: The Autobiography of a Public Man," goes to the publisher today as well. Beyond that, he indicated that he may have other opportunities for public service "which I will seize with alacrity and interest."

Marion Javits, making one of her rare Washington appearances, said, "I have lived history next to this man who was the most articulate and brilliant politician I've ever known. I've worked hard next to him -- and we were devoted."

The Wallach's Early American art collection drew admiring glances from several of their guests, including British Ambassador Nicholas Henderson, Egyptian Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal, Moroccan Ambassador Ali Bengelloun and Middle East negotiator Sol Linowitz. The hostess wore a on-of-a-kind black pleated Chanel dress. Which brought up the subject of fashion.

"The story making the rounds in New York," said one guest, "is that Galanos will do Nancy Reagan's inaugural gown and Gucci will do the Holster."