Rule number one for potential speech-givers: Before lobbing a joke at anyone else, aim one at yourself.

"All my life I've wanted to run for president in the worst possible way," Walter Mondale told a National Press Club audience Saturday night. "And I did."

Rule number two: If it is your first public appearance since losing a big election, give yourself a few extra jabs for good measure, just to show you've recovered.

"David came to me over a year ago, said he was planning to run for president of the club, and asked for my advice," said Mondale, as newly elected press club president David Hess looked on. "I told him to do three things. 'Number one: Get out in front early, and try and make your election seem inevitable. A little arrogance never hurt either.

" 'Quickly identify and seek out every special interest, and cater to them and do it all in public.

" 'Finally,' I said, 'You must be courageous. Face up to the real fiscal problems of this organization. Look the members in the eye and tell them you're going to raise their dues.' "

The 320 guests at the press club's inauguration of their new president heard from several speakers ranging from Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste to a man who pretended to be Mark Twain to a man who really was White House spokesman Larry Speakes, but Mondale's brief talk went over the best.

Perhaps it was because, as Mondale said before dinner, "I get to swear him in. Besides, I wanted to go to a Washington inaugural."

Or perhaps it was because even three months after an election, there remains a certain doubt about the loser: Will he handle himself well, or is it all still a little too raw?

Mondale seemed just fine, chatting with reporters who asked him questions like, "Do you remember giving that speech in that little town in the middle of nowhere in 1976 that I wrote an article about?"

There was that one final comment, however.

"I have to admit the president is really a very intelligent guy," Mondale said.

"He's personable, believable, capable, popular and a great communicator. And that's why I'm so honored to be swearing him in . . ."

As at all such dinners, there were a few new subjects on the humor hit parade, with Redskins fullback John Riggins the evening's clear favorite.

Speakes also hit all the old familiar buttons: Reagan's naps, White House intruders and just a few Walter Mondale jokes.

"I don't believe Riggins fell asleep," said Speakes of Riggins' adventures at last week's Washington Press Club dinner. "Walter Mondale wasn't the speaker."

Hisses from the audience.

"Back last year, we were afraid the president would have opposition," he said. "Then Walter Mondale got the Democratic nomination."

More hisses.

"It is a pleasure to be here with Walter Mondale," he said, "the president of Minnesota."

Hiss, hiss, hiss.

Poor Larry Speakes.

Mondale is now back in law practice and said he was involved only "very, very marginally" in last week's selection of a new Democratic National Committee chairman.

"Paul Kirk -- he understands. He's a good man," he said of the DNC choice. "I called him to congratulate him and offered to help."

And the kind of help?

"Oh," he said, "I don't know. We're not there yet."

Two others who are now working on the margins rather than at the center were there.

"We just got married three weeks ago," said Jim Johnson, Mondale's campaign chairman. Standing next to the smiling Johnson was an equally beaming Maxine Isaacs, Mondale's campaign press secretary and the other half of the "we." Johnson is now back with his consulting firm, Public Strategies, and Isaacs is "talking to people about working -- probably corporate."

"It's wonderful," said Johnson. "We started out in July of '76. Max and I went on the campaign plane in '76, then right into the White House. For 8 1/2 years we were eating, breathing and talking politics."

"This is the first break," she said.

"We're both happy," he said. "Everyone needs a break at least every 8 1/2 years."