Hodding Carter, once State Department spokesman, now self-effacing anchorman of "Inside Story," the new PBS series on how the news media malfunctions, was talking with consumer king Ralph Nader at the reception before the premiere last week when a woman walked up.

"Do you remember me?" asked WETA's Page Crosland to Nader. "i drove you around down south when you came to the Southern Leadership Conference." Crosland turned to Carter. "I was supposed to drive him around and he wouldn't get into the car unless it had a seat belt.I had to tear up the seat to find it. He simply wouldn't get in the car until I did."

"I think we have to go in now," said Nader.

They went, as did everyone else, into the cavernous auditorium of the Carnegie Institute, where the series' producer, the president of WETA and Carter himself all trooped on stage to thank one another for their brilliance, hard work and modesty.

"This is the last you'll see of me," finished Carter. "I'm going to turn out the lights and flee this room." The show began with a list of corporate sponsors that included Johnson & Johnson, Kaiser Aluminum, Revson, Atlantic Richfield, Clorox, Shell and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Oh, and one that wasn't listed.

"I want to thank Phillips Petroleum," said the producer, "for providing the cocktails." Portrait of the Artist

Francoise Gilot, the artist, once mistress of Pable Picasso, now married to Jonas Salk, fielded all manner of questions at the party given for her last week by Washingtonians Lee Kimche and Harvey Baskin.

"Didn't you mind when Picasso painted all those pictures of you so big, and strong and . . . well, you know what I mean," asked Barbara Marks.

"I did not mind it," said Gilot with a commanding Gallic air. "You must remember, when an artist paints a portrait, he is always painting himself."

Gilot wore a crimson dress and twisted a long necklace of dark amber beads as she spoke. She's never exhibited her paintings in Washington "because no one has ever approached me. You must always wait until they come to you." The Senator's New Friends

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) himself acknowledged that he didn't know most of the people who filled Tiberio restaurant last week at a party in his honor. But as his reelection in '82 has been targeted by NCPAC (the National Conservative Political Action Committee) and the Conservative Caucus, and as every couple in the room had shelled out at least $1,000 to attend, he wasn't complaining. He was pleading.

"I'm on a hit list," Metzenbaum told the crowd. "If the election were held tomorrow, I could win." But then, he acknowledged, that's what Birch Bayh, George McGovern and Dick Clark thought, too.

The fund-raiser was cooked up by Washington artist Yankel Ginzburg. He came to the United States from Russia via Israel in 1968. The Metzenbaums sponsored him, as a matter of fact. And many of the people in the room said they'd come because "Yankel asked me to."

"In my business you have a lot of friends," said Ginzburg. "There is no common denominator here tonight." Except money, of course.

Sen. Allen Cranston (D-Calif.) was one of the dinner's hosts, and he rose to deliver a rousing speech in Metzenbaum's favor, as did former senator Dick Clark and Sen. J. J. Exon (D-Neb.).

But host is a word of many meanings.

Why was Cranston hosting the dinner?

"Howard asked me to," he said. Kentucky Bloodlines

At Mary Jefferson Patterson's big house in Cleveland Park on Derby Day there were: mint juleps in misting plastic cups, Kentucky ham with beaten biscuits and lots of talk about bloodlines, equine and otherwise.

This was all for the benefit of the Frontier Nursing Service, which Patterson's aunt founded in eastern Kentucky back in the '20s. Patterson herself went down there in the '30s to ride muleback to the aid of backwoods women fixing to increase the world's population. That was before she became a photojournalist and married and became a wartime correspondent in Paris and London and the like.

Once the race was run, the television screens set up all over the house lit up with the faces of Kentucky Gov. John . Brown and his wife, Phyllis George.

"Why there's Mr. Fingerlickin' and Big Phyllis," exclaimed Mrs. H. Bartholonew Cox, a Washingtonian from Kentucky who pointed out that her great uncle was once governor of the Bluegrass State.

She ate some ham, which happened to have been cured with the 200-year-old secret recipe from the family farm. It's such a secret recipe, only the tenant knows it. "Tenants have all sorts of old wives' tales about it," said Cox. "And you just have to go along with it."

Before the race Claire Schweiker read from index cards a lengthy greeting from her husband, the secretary of health and human services. Committeewoman Ruth Newell made a beeline for Schweiker after the last index card had been turned.

"Won't you join our committee?" Newell asked hopefully. "We'd love to have you."

"I'd like that very much," said Schweiker graciously, "but I'll have to check with the department first. They're so strict about things like that." Dance of Diplomacy

The Asia Society gathered together recently to celebrate 25 years of interest in all things Asian.

Talking quietly in the middle of the crowd were the State Department's man on the China desk and two ranking ministers from the Chinese Embassy, calmly discussing a tale that fit the historic occasion. It certainly couldn't have happened a quarter of a century ago.

That very day, it seemed, a male Chinese ballet dancer, training in Texas, had married an American. It was all very hush-hush, but it seemed the young man had gone to his consulate and, at that moment, there was still some question as to whether he'd be coming back out.

Lin Zhaonan, No. 2 man at the embassy, didn't have much to say about the matter, publicly at least. He smiled politely and stepped quietly away toward the strawberries.

Wang Zicheng, a new minister counselor, had a similar reaction.

"Mr. Lin assured us it will all be solved," said Darryl Johnson, the political section chief at State. "With 6,000 Chinese students in this country and 100 delegations arriving every month, you've got to assume they've assessed the possibility of something like this."

And the interest is growing. "At our new consulate in Guangzhou, [Canton]," said Johnson, "we keep five visa officers busy all day."