The talk was of budgets and boxing at last night's benefit dinner for the Charles Edison Memorial Youth Fund at the Sheraton Washington. More than 700 people attended the $200-a-plate affair honoring Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), involved in the program since it was established in 1969.

Edison, the son of inventor Thomas, created the fund to sponsor educational programs for students, such as a six-week summer institute in comparative politics at Georgetown University . "The future of our country is determined by the education of our youth," said Mike Caslin, executive director of the program, who attended the institute in 1978 as a Manhattanville College student.

Many of the guests, however, were unfamiliar with the program. "Oh, I thought this was all for Barry Goldwater's birthday or something," said one woman.

Another woman asked a bartender, "Who's Charlie Edison?" He shrugged and poured her another drink.

The furs came out of the closet for the evening. At the smoke-filled reception before the dinner, the women kissed cheeks and petted each other's minks. About 25 guests, including Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), William Casey, director of the CIA, political analyst F. Clifton White and the Rev. Richard Halverson, attended a smaller pre-dinner party called "the special VIP reception."

Several of the fund's scholars stood outside the door, peering in at the select group of guests. "Someday we'll be Very Important People," one of them said with a laugh.

They are well on their way. Many of the fund's graduates now work in positions of authority in various branches of the government. And the impact of the $1,700 program goes beyond intellectual enrichment. "It changed my whole life," says Caslin.

Jeffrey Simmons, a participant last year from Cochise College in Arizona, said, "I learned so much, but it was also a lot of fun being exposed to these people in government."

Meanwhile, in the VIP room, a group gathered around Goldwater, who wanted to talk about education, not budgets. "Budgets, budgets," he said, shaking his head. "It's gotten so that I dream about them."