The theme was circus--dinner under a big tent, popcorn, peanuts, even a live elephant named Mignon. Last night, about 200 friends of White House political director Lyn Nofziger came to celebrate his departure from the job he wasn't fond of from the beginning.

"I don't like government," Nofziger said. "Some do, some don't. It's like spinach."

Despite the snowstorm and the 14th Street Bridge plane-crash tragedy, a majority of the expected party guests still managed to make it. The only concession to the elements was that late in the day, the dress was changed from black-tie to office wear. This was done so that people wouldn't have to go home and change.

"How could you call it off?" asked Roy Pfautch, a St. Louis public affairs consultant who arranged the party. "I never really seriously thought about calling it off. I asked several people about 4 p.m. if we should cancel because we'd had about 20 cancellations, but the general feeling was we shouldn't."

Pfautch, an inactive Presbyterian minister who is in Washington about one week a month, says he has been friends with Nofziger since 1963. The signs at the Sheraton Washington pointing the way to the ballroom read: "Roy Pfautch's Party."

"The hotel did that," said Pfautch.

Among the guests were presidential counselor Edwin Meese, national security adviser William Clark, White House personnel director E. Pendleton James, Interior Secretary James Watt, CIA Director William Casey, Attorney General William French Smith and Noel Gross, a National Republican committeewoman from New Jersey who said she was on theincoming leg of the Air Florida flight. .

"The cab driver told me about the crash coming over here," said Gross. "You think, 'My god.' "

Meese, Clark and Helene von Damm of the White House personnel office gave speeches in honor of Nofziger after dinner. "This is the 15th annual goodbye Lyn Nofziger party I've been to," said Meese over his cocktail. He was referring to Nofziger's habit of repeatedly leaving and returning to the Reagan fold.

Nofziger is leaving the White House to do some radio, writing and political commentary. He was never entirely happy in the political director's office, away from the action in the West Wing. In addition, there were continuing reports of friction between Nofziger and top presidential advisers. "The last year has had its ups and downs, as all years do," Nofziger remarked.

Meanwhile, an elephant was walking around the dance floor. He was impossible to miss. "That elephant is odoriferous," remarked Meese.