The guest of honor called himself "an outsider on the way to becoming an insider," and although he was probably referring to more than the party, the remark summed that up pretty well, too.

Most people in Washington like to consider themselves insiders, but last night's party was for the insiders' insiders.

Justices, Cabinet members, ambassadors -- beginning with Warren Burger, William French Smith and Zhang Wenjin -- were among the more than 400 people who gathered to welcome the new secretary of the Smithsonian, Robert McC. Adams, at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Any new insider must meet all the other insiders, a rather wearying process if done all at once, as Adams did last night by participating in what he later called a "torturous receiving line." The line extended through two large rooms, a small entrance hall and out the door.

"I've become aware that so many of you are quite better informed about the Smithsonian than I am," he told the guests after the line ended.

Later, he said he was in the process of catching up with all the "Smithsonian watchers" he met last night.

"You have to sort of jump in and learn to swim once you're in the water," he said. "It's a huge, ongoing organization of more parts than I know about. You simply learn about the most essential elements, and the others -- when they become essential because they get in more trouble, you'll learn about them then."

For those who were already settled insiders, the party had not only all those pleasantly familiar faces but also an agreeable purpose.

"I think so many ambassadors came because there are no political implications here," said host Daniel Terra, ambassador at large for cultural affairs. "We're talking about culture here."

Among those talking about culture and eating grapes rolled in Roquefort and pistachio nuts were Attorney General Smith, FBI Director William Webster, CIA Director William Casey, Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, Chinese Ambassador Zhang and an impressive array of museum directors and other assorted cultural types.

And none of them, of course, would dream of disliking the Smithsonian.

"Our favorite institution!" a woman gushed to Adams upon introduction. She then disappeared into the crowd.

"I love it all," said Chief Justice Burger of the Smithsonian. Burger is chancellor of the Smithsonian's board of regents. "The Air and Space is, of course, the most fantastic thing in the world."

Then Justice Byron White walked by. He recommended the oysters to Burger.

"I always take his recommendations," Burger said. "Isn't that right, Byron?"

White smiled and Burger went off in search of oysters.

"I get there frequently," said Interior Secretary William Clark about the Smithsonian. "I also ride a horse nearby several times a week."

Joining him tomorrow will be Helene von Damm, U.S. ambassador to Austria.

"We're going horseback riding at 6 with the judge," she said.

Von Damm took up riding in Vienna and just returned from a four-day fox hunt in Hungary.

"I had to go around the hurdles," she said.

Von Damm was in the United States for a wedding and came to Washington for the day to attend the party for Adams.

"It's the friends you miss," she said. "Not so much the pressure, but the friends."