"It's a program which is the quintessence of Washington," American University's president Richard Berendzen told a small, select group invited for dinner in the Rayburn Building.

He was talking about AU's Washington Semester Program, which marked its 35th anniversary last night by presenting awards to government, business and community leaders who have lectured its 9,000 student participants through the years from 200 colleges and universities.

Noting that Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.) was to deliver the evening's keynote address on "International Economic Policy in an Unstable World," Berendzen also said that one of the most pressing economic concerns today is unemployment.

"Calvin Coolidge solved that for us many years ago," said Berendzen dryly. "At one point in a pithy phrase, he said, 'The principal cause of unemployment in the United States is that people do not have jobs.' "

Mathias, who was among the 14 award winners present, had no such ready answers, but he had some observations.

"Twenty percent of the United States' industrial output is now exported, and if we don't sell that 20 percent, Americans are going to be out of work," he said at one point.

At another: "When we reduce our contributions to multilateral development banks and invite other nations to do the same . . . we lose the leverage effect.

"For example," Mathias continued, "I think the Caribbean Basin Initiative would have been more wisely and economically conceived as a multilateral program than as a bilateral program."

In the audience, other award winners included Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D-Neb.), Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), Rep. Henry Gonzalez (D-Tex.) and Federal Reserve Board Governor Nancy Teeters, who is also an alumnus of Washington Semester. Listening to Mathias, another award recipient, former Export-Import Bank director Margaret Kahliff, nodded in agreement.

Before dinner, she and Mathias talked about congressional funding for the bank. As Sen. Dale Bumpers' (D-Ark.) sister, Kahliff said Mathias told her, " 'Now you're going to have to help me with Dale. I need his vote.' I said, 'You're kidding, you already have it. I've been brainwashing him for a long time.' "

Kahliff, who is 65, said she left the bank in August because she didn't think the United States was doing enough about world trade. Appointed by Gerald Ford and reappointed by Jimmy Carter, she said she told the Reagan transition team she didn't plan to stay more than a couple of years.

"My boss William H. Draper III said, 'Good, there are a lot of good Republicans looking for your seat.' I said, 'What is a good Republican?' and he said, 'One who didn't serve under Carter,' and from that day forward I wanted to get out."

Kahliff said Draper didn't really want her to leave because he wanted her there for continuity. "I said, 'All you gotta do is go study' -- which he doesn't do. He's a nice man with a difficult assignment. They brought him in because Dave Stockman wants to close the bank."

Chairman of the bipartisan bank board for five months, it fell to Kahliff to testify at the oversight hearings on the Hill. "OMB was always trying to tell me what to say and I wouldn't do it."

Kahliff said that during the Carter administration, she once asked Export-Import Bank President John Moore how she managed to survive what had been a political purge. She said he told her, "Oh, come on, Maggie. Where could we find a woman who's a Republican from a small business with a brother in the Senate who's a Democrat?"