"I'll tell you what really happened," said Robert Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, yesterday afternoon to a Sheraton Washington Hotel ballroom full of Texas State Society members, John Cope, president.

"Cope called me in the middle of the night and said hysterically, 'Mark White's coming to town. What in the hell're we going to do with him?'

"I said, 'I don't know, but you're not giving him to me.' So then I said, 'Aren't you still president of that Texas State Society? Why don't you call a meeting and have him speak there?'

"Cope said, 'You think they'll take him?'

"And I said, 'With the kind of showing we've had over the years, they'll even take Mark White.' "

They did take to him, and right kindly.

About 500 Lone Star Staters put away fancy boots for dark suits and hung a Texas-sized flag on the wall for their annual meeting and luncheon to honor Gov. Mark White, the Democrat who defeated incumbent GOP governor Bill Clements last fall.

"It's a celebration of a victory already achieved," said House Majority Leader James Wright during the "meet 'n' greet" part of the gathering. (That's Texas talk for cocktails in the afternoon.)

"It's really just a rallying point for Texans," explained Rue Judd, vice president of the society.

"Most of our guys are out of town," said Wright. "For Easter . . . when a session ends, as it did last Thursday, we scatter like a covey of quail someone has shot into."

But while plenty of citified folks got in line to shake their governor's hand, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), presidential candidate-to-be, drew a small crowd of his own.

"Have you announced, Fritz?" one guest said loudly, slapping Hollings on the back.

"No, I haven't announced yet. I've got everybody waiting," Hollings said, but added that he plans to make it official at an April 18 luncheon.

After the crowd was herded down to the tables set with red, white and blue napkins for a bland banquet-chicken lunch, entertainer Teddy Heard (who used to work on Capitol Hill) belted out knee-slapping country music, ending with a sing-along of "Texas, Our Texas."

It was White's Texas twang that the crowd apparently wanted to hear, judging from the standing ovation as he stepped to the podium.

White began his speech with some advice for the factions from Colorado, South Carolina and Ohio that Cope had said were in the crowd.

"I've tried to be even-handed about this. Chuck Manatt, chairman of the Democratic National Committee knows I've tried to be fair to all presidential candidates. But I want to tell you about campaigning in Texas," White said, captivating the crowd.

"Take out your pens and write this down: If you don't like barbecue, don't campaign in Texas. And when you go to South Texas and they hand you a tamale, take the shuck off," White said, alluding to the time when former president Gerald Ford failed to shuck properly on just such a politicking trip.

Hoots and hollers went up from the tables.

Bob Cole, director of programming at country-music radio station WPKX-FM ("KIX-106"), leaned toward his wife, Linda. "He's going to be vice president or president some day," Cole said. "What charm."