Here's what Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler likes best about her job:

"I get to sit next to the president at Cabinet meetings and, you know, he's a very funny man," she said at the Sheraton Carlton last night. "I once said to him, 'Mr. President, you do realize that it's National Secretaries' Week?' He said, 'You bet I do and I'm just furious that George Shultz won't wear my corsage.' "

Heckler was one of several hundred serious-looking people who gathered for the annual reception in honor of the public affairs fellows of the Hoover Institute, a conservative, California-based think tank. Many of the men wore Hoover Institute ties. The women wore stick pins.

A few hours before the party began the White House--normally a big supporter of the institute's party--released suddenly discovered Carter briefing papers for the 1980 presidential debate.

Absent from the guest roster were several White House officials, such as CIA Director William Casey, who has been linked to the papers, and Attorney General William French Smith, whose Justice Department is looking into the matter. Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver also didn't show.

"Well, well," said Glenn Campbell, director of the institute, when told that the papers had turned up in the files of Reagan campaign aides, including White House communications director David Gergen. "I'd just as soon not comment on that. It is interesting, however, that we were supposed to have all the campaign and transition papers at the Hoover Institute. I'm glad to hear Mr. Gergen saved them for posterity. I hope in due course to have them for Hoover."

"I'm not going to comment on that," said presidential counselor Edwin Meese. "Is that all you want to ask about?"

"I don't know anything about it," said Heckler.

Guests milled around under sparkling chandeliers in the Carlton's vast Crystal Room. The fare was decidedly Republican: shrimp, steak tartare, sesame chicken, technicolor fruit and pasta salad. They talked about the weather and position papers.

The Hoover Institute at Stanford University has supplied the Reagan administration with many of its people and ideas over the past few years. The thrust of the public affairs fellows program is to find talented academicians, train them at Hoover, and then find jobs for them in the executive and legislative branches.

"I just found I wasn't meeting the right kind of people, people like this," said one lawyer, ogling the crowd. "So when I was offered the fellowship, I was delighted. I've been meeting the people. Now I just have to find a job."