Eugene McCarthy worked the room as though he'd never been away. John Lindsay looked as trim and twinkly as ever. Frank Church vowed a comeback for the Democrats in 1984. It seemed like old times at the Shoreham Hotel: days of wine and cheese and liberals.

Yesterday's reception followed a morning press conference at which television producer Norman Lear announced the new media campaign of People for the American Way, a group started nine months ago to confront what one PAW brochure calls the "Religious New Right."

In a new series of commercials designed to combat efforts by the Moral Majority and other conservative groups to influence television programming, Muhammad Ali says he likes Little Richard, Goldie Hawn says she likes eggs with cream cheese, and Carol Burnett turns up her nose at loud rock music. The commericals are intended to support freedom of expression.

Lear, the television iconoclast whose creations include "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons" and who has been the PAW's media adviser since its inception last fall, gave a preview of the group's new public service announcements for both the press and the evening's guests. The 30-second ads are of the "man-on-the-street" variety and feature cabdrivers, children and married couples -- as well as entertainment stars -- giving their differing opinions on music, sports and, yes, eggs.

At the press conference, John Lofton, the editor of Conversative Digest and a self-professed supporter of the Moral Majority, challenged Lear to discuss homosexuality and abortion in PAW's new campaign. "You've got a bunch of commercials on sports, music and eggs here," said Lofton. "Why don't you address yourself to the issues put forth by the Moral Majority?"

"The spots are not about eggs and sports but about freedom of expression," said Lear. "I believe the American people are far wiser than you give them credit for. I think they'll make the connection."

After the press conference, Lear said, "These are public service announcements and we don't wish them to be controversial, that is, unless someone somewhere thinks freedom of expression is controversial."

Lear said PAW will send the new ads to every commercial station in the country and has requested they be aired beginning July 4th. The commercials were directed by Jonathan Demme, winner of the New York Film Critics' Best Director Award in 1980 for "Melvin and Howard."

According to its brochures, PAW opposes recent efforts by the Coalition for Better T.V., led by the Rev. Donald Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., to boycott sponsors of what he calls "immoral" programs. The coalition claims the support of 5 million families in all 50 states. "I don't wish to see any group in the country apply its own standards on television programming," said Lear. Recently, Procter & Gamble chairman Owen Butler announced that his corporation, which spent $486.3 million on television advertising last year, would not buy time on programs that are too violent or sexually suggestive.

Anthony Podesta, the executive director of PAW, also criticized efforts by various groups to ban books by J. D. Salinger, John Steinbeck and Bernard Malamud, among others, from libraries and schools. "Moral Majoritarians suggest that there is only one godly, pro-American way to think and that they be the sole judges of what we read, how we live and what our children should learn," said Podesta.

Lindsay speculated on future PAW efforts: "I think these ads are good, they're tone setters designed to set a certain mood. What will come after, I think, will have a more cutting edge and could be concerned more directly with censorship and book burning."

PAW has raised nearly $2 million so far and has 25,000 members, according to Podesta. The group's board of advisers includes religious leaders such as the Rev. William Howard of the National Council of Churches and Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, as well as liberal politicians including former Iowa senator Harold Hughes and former congresswoman from Texas, Barbara Jordon. s

During the press conference Lear called the members of the New Right" "mean-spirited." Asked to elaborate, Lear said afterward, "They call me a pornographer. I'd say that's pretty mean-spirited."

At the reception, most of the talk centered around the Reagan White House or the Moral Majority when it centered around politics at all. But a single hint of another era did appear. Ruth Carter Stapleton did all she could to break away from Joel Schatz of Salem, Ore., as he went on about "the biosphere" and "the whole brain." After finally prying herself loose of Schatz's cosmic rap, Stapleton said, "It's just bull---, and I don't have time to listen to it."

And how did Brother Jimmy feel about PAW?

"We don't usually tell each other what we're involved with, so I really don't know," she said. "But I'll tell you how I feel. You know me. I'm for Jesus, for the church and all, but I believe in freedom of choice."