Walter Mondale looked back on a quarter-century of public life last night as he resumed his old love -- fresh and cruel as she ever was -- the law.

"They accepted me as a partner at Winston and Strawn by a vote of 7 to 6," he told a knot of friends and old warhorses at a grand reception in the Phillips Collection last night. "Now you may not think that's such a comfortable majority. But after what I've been through, it looks pretty good to me." (Laughter.)

Many of his best friends in the House and Senate were tied up at the Capitol until too late for the early-evening party, but Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen got there and so did Missouri Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, with a whiplash injury to his neck.

Mondale walked over, put his hands gently on the afflicted neck and softly said, "Sue. Sue."

John Reilly, senior partner of the firm giving the party, made a conventional, gracious and heroically brief welcome speech (Applause) and said later he imagined Mondale would deal largely with international corporation work.

Mondale was bronzed, handsome in a blue suit with a bright red tie (bright red in this well-known firm?) and Joan Mondale, slender and alert, sported a dazzling white jacket over a brown plaid dress.

They have returned from a skiing holiday. In all these years they never broke anything, the former vice president said.

One thing, he said, that always comforted him in his years of public life was the fact that he's a lawyer. The center, as he sees it, of civilization.

"I'll never run for public office again," he said later, but will certainly make his voice heard when he thinks it appropriate.

Many younger lawyers were on hand and many of the "walking wounded" who worked in the Mondale campaign for the presidency.

Bess Abell, who was a press secretary at the White House in the Johnson administration and has been a notable Democratic figure ever since, was asked about rumors she is writing a fabulous book.

"How can I?" she demanded. "Everybody has stolen all my best stories." She is a great friend of the horse and a true believer in the therapeutic value of that noble beast, pointing out its endless merits to Judy Whittlesey, Sherry Geyelin and all who wished to learn. When the world is too much, turn to the horse, to which many said amen.

Waiters in great number bore silver salvers of food, most notably plain bacon which is increasingly admired at Washington parties by men, whose wives have read something or other and refuse to serve it at breakfast. Quite small (and therefore legal) French pastries went well, especially some napoleons flavored with lemon, to say nothing of masses of melon balls fully edible, not always true in April.

Upstairs, where the great Renoir "Luncheon of the Boating Party" is, along with the washrooms, a harp played, causing a comfortable feeling of refinement to anybody who detoured to view the Daumier that used to be in the place of honor downstairs but which can be seen more closely now.

Back by the great piano used in concerts ("do not play it," says the sign in case anybody were so bold or so carried away by a festive mood) a string quartet played Baroque music. All far from the hurly-burly of Democratic public life.

Toward the shank of the evening a reporter boldly told Mondale that like Eagleton he, too, had a whiplashed neck, and while the former vice president would probably be too busy with corporation law, uh, --

"Sue," said Mondale. "Sue."