There were the kind of jokes friends make knowing friends will laugh at them. There was the comment of former secretary of state Alexander Haig: "Those of you in the Cabinet can look around and know -- you are becoming a minority!"

And at the intimate dinner for outgoing Secretary of Agriculture John Block, it was all done early -- the toasts didn't even wait for the dessert -- perhaps because everyone knows farmer Block doesn't like late nights.

The jokes-among-friends frequently referred to Block's tendency to prop a sheet of music in his wife's hand, his foot on any available object and a guitar under his arm. While he didn't bring the guitar last night, few let him forget those times when he did.

"Heraclitus, the old Greek, said a man's faults are his virtues carried to extreme," Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige began in his remarks to the 50 or so friends gathered at the Jefferson Hotel.

"In the case of Block, I never saw anything carried to extreme at the Cabinet level . . . On the other hand, he thought he was some kind of a country singer, and that same kind of determination and drive led him into such excesses of those virtues, being taken so far as to sing, 'It's been a long time since I've seen you, Lucille.' "

At this point, Baldrige warbled the requisite lyrics and then added, "and he wasn't as near on key as I was!"

The guests, who included Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Interior Secretary Donald Hodel and Haig, found this especially amusing, although one was stirred to call out, "At least he got the words right!"

It was that kind of dinner -- intimate enough for mild heckling, but formal enough for tuxedos on every male frame and a meal with sherbet between courses and food so refined that every morsel was wrapped delicately around another.

The evening's host, Ambassador at Large for Cultural Affairs Daniel Terra, seems to give farewell parties as regularly as most of us pay the rent, but he claimed this one was unusual even for him because "100 percent of the guests accepted! No regrets! No regrets! That's very unusual. It's because they're so popular."

And so Terra spent much of his time during the predinner drinks crying, "Sextet! Sextet!" This was the signal for the photographer to snap a group shot of Terra and his fiance' Judith Banks, John and Sue Block and the latest luminary and luminous spouse to arrive.

"I feel very good, very excited about a future in private life," Block said in between sextets, an understandable sentiment after five years spent taking much of the heat for one of the roughest periods in American farming since the Great Depression. When asked about the problems behind and ahead at Agriculture, Block's designated replacement Richard Lyng laughed and said, "Most of the letters of congratulations I get -- the second paragraph says, 'But what a terrible time to take it on!' "

But despite the tensions, Sue Block admitted to some trepidations about leaving government life. "I feel kind of nervous about this new adventure," she said, although she added that some things will stay the same: She will continue tutoring and working with homeless women.

"And doing the laundry!" laughed her husband.

"The housework . . . " she smiled.

"We don't want to forget those things," he said, continuing to laugh.

Block has yet to announce just what private life will be for him. He is expected to join a food trade association, "but I haven't signed any papers and there's nothing absolute. I'm going to take a job, but I'll still give a few speeches. I want to keep some visibility -- you can't get politics out of your blood that easily."

And will he be taking advantage of that visibility to return to political life?

"I don't know about that -- I'm not sure I believe in reincarnation."