The president and Mrs. Reagan began a marathon of ball-going last night with a visit to the American Legion's banquet in a captial celebrating both the inauguration and the hostages' freedom.

Even though President Ronald Reagan could spend only five minutes at the "Salute to Heroes" banquet for about 200 Medal of Honor recipients, they were happy to use up two of it cheering for him.

Then another 10 seconds in guffaws at the president's grinning-at-the-floor humility as he thanked them for "allowing me to interrupt your dinner."

If a cat can laugh at a queen, a Medal of Honor holder can certainly laugh at a president.

"I remember a story I read in a novel by a man known as the Kipling of America, a man whose novels were made into movies by John Ford and John Wayne," the president told the medal winners, other veterans, the American Legion officers who sponsored the banquet and ball and their wives -- about 700 strong, all told, at the Capital Hilton.

"A commanding officer fell mortally wounded. And he said, as he was dying: 'There may be only one time in your life when you may be called on to do what has to be done. Do it or you will have the taste of ashes in your mouth the rest of your life.' The men here tonight have no taste of ashes. And as Alexander Haig said in his Senate hearing the other day, with no uncertainty: 'There are some things for which we must be willing to fight.'"

Somebody in the audience shouted "Yeah!" and then the whole audience stood, shouting and applauding while the Reagans exited to the sounds of a Marine combo playing "Hail to the Chief."

Nobody there seemed to have a bad word for the president.

"Our crawling days are over," said retired Gen. Joe Foss, Marine fighter-pilot hero of Guadalcanal, and former governor of South Dakota. "He's going to be more firm. He would've gotten the hostages back sooner, would have done something right away. But the Iranians never would have taken them if we'd been firm."

"I started picking up a feeling of patriotism in this country about two years ago," said retired Navy Capt. Donald K. Ross, who won his Medal of Honor at Pearl Harbor.

"I'll put it this way," said retired First Sgt. David McNerney, whose Medal of Honor came from actions in Vietnam. "I was invited to attend the last inauguration and I declined."