"Whatever you do, don't call us old-timers," said Wilbur Cohen. He was secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under Lyndon Johnson. "Say we're virile, young . . ."

"No, not virile," said Robert Wood. He was secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Johnson. "Say that we're younger than our age."

The banter was typical. The two have known each other for years. It sounded like a class reunion for Democrats.

It wasn't a certain class the 16 honored guests last night shared, but the job of Cabinet member under a Democratic president.

Joseph Califano Jr., Moon Landrieu, Ray Marshall and Brock Adams were among those representing the Carter administration. Willard Wirtz and Orville Freeman were two from the John Kennedy days. Clark Clifford and Robert Weaver worked with Johnson. Patricia Roberts Harris, secretary of Health and Human Services for Carter, was the only woman Cabinet member there.

Charles Manatt, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called in the group from Texas, New York, Georgia and Connecticut for a dinner at his house. It's part of a new plan for putting a Democrat in the White House.

According to Terry Michael, deputy director of communications for the DNC, the former cabinet members are expected to get involved in campaigning. They will also serve as "ad hoc truth squads to take issue with any Reagan administration policy decisions or outrageous acts" and will help steer policy development.

"1984 will be our time to unite against someone and an administration we're so committed to defeat," Manatt said.

He stood before his guests, who were seated at five tables and were served by a crew of formal waiters. The main course was veal.

Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who served as ambassador to the United Nations under Carter, also showed up.

"I came because I'm a good solid Democrat who's convinced that things can go a whole lot better for a whole lot of people," Young said. He and Cohen admitted to leaning toward Walter Mondale for the Democratic presidential candidate.

"But I'll be backing everybody," Young said.

Not many of the guests claimed a candidate, preferring instead to just support the party or favorite colleagues.

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Committee, at first declined to speak to the guests when introduced by Manatt, but then changed his mind and followed remarks made by Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "I think Chuck's doing a great job," Bentsen said, "I think Tony's going to increase the majority in the House and I think Bob Byrd is going to be majority leader."

The guests put down their espresso cups to clap.

Winding up the dinner was Clark Clifford, who told a story about Samuel Johnson. Johnson was sent a manuscript by a writer who thought a lot of his own writing. He wrote back saying he had read the manuscript and that it was both good and original. The trouble was that the part that was good was not original and the part that was original wasn't good.

"I thought how applicable it could be when directed toward an individual in office," Clifford said.