It was like a family reunion.

With "best friend" Ronald Reagan leading the pack in praise of Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.):

Said the president: "As most of you know, Paul and I were elected governors of our respective states at about the same time. They say we started even. I had California, with one of the biggest economies of the nation. Paul had Nevada and Howard Hughes.

"We had a lot in common," added Reagan. "Lake Tahoe, for example."

And Reagan continued: "There were those who said a straight shooter like Paul could never make it in Washington. But sure enough, Paul has disposed of problems here just as easy as he disposed of them in Nevada. He had the best possible training for Washington -- as a rancher and a herder: They have exactly the same sort of disposal problems that we have."

Reagan was unusually emotional at the steak-and-potatoes tribute called "America Salutes Paul Laxalt," a $1,000-a-plate dinner hosted last night at the Hyatt Regency on the Hill by conservative Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Political Action Committee. The money raised will go to Republican candidates chosen by Laxalt.

"Sometimes the words just aren't there. The task is really impossible," said Reagan, his voice growing softer and more solemn. "I guess that is what Lincoln felt at Gettysburg. He knew there are occasions when words must be brief because of feelings are so deep. This evening is one such occasion."

Reagan called Laxalt "one of the foremost Americans of our time, or of any time." He wound up his speech saying, "He is truly a man for all seasons. He's our friend, our good friend. God bless him."

The whole idea came up because Laxalt will be retiring from the Senate this year, a fact mentioned by many of the speakers.

Weyrich said Laxalt was being honored because he is a "special friend."

"This city is filled with opportunists," said Weyrich, "and people who have no character. Paul has a loyalty which doesn't exist in this era."

Representing others in the close Laxalt "family" were Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Attorney General Edwin Meese, outgoing presidential counselor Fred Fielding, former secretary of state Alexander Haig, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater (who almost got as many cheers as the president when introduced). Laxalt's wife Carol and daughter Michelle represented his real family at the podium.

Kemp, who stopped at half the tables in the room to shake hands, gave a toast to the guest of honor.

"Paul Laxalt is the only U.S. senator for whom you have to call the White House operator to talk to," said Kemp, in reference to his ties to Reagan.

But Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., chairman of the Republican National Committee, explained how Laxalt was able to get through.

"I'll give you his secret," said Fahrenkopf. "What you do is you call the White House signal, and in a very low voice you say, 'I want to talk to the president. This is Don Regan.' That's how he does it."

But the crowd really loved Goldwater, giving the former GOP presidential nominee one of the few standing ovations of the night.

"Paul, I don't know if you know this, but ABC and Moscow are going to carry a little critique and Mr. Vladimir Posner is getting all charged up now," said Goldwater, referring to the recent response by the Soviet journalist aired on ABC after Reagan's speech last week on the defense budget.

Goldwater reminisced a little and went on.

"I just hope you keep real close to Washington. In fact," said Goldwater, "I understand that Mr. Marcos is going to move to Las Vegas and I can tell you he might be of help to you out there," he said in one of the night's few jokes about Laxalt's celebrated final conversation with the about-to-be-ousted Philippine leader.

Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah), who, like Laxalt, was elected to the Senate in 1974, called Laxalt the "brother" he never had, but not before he'd gotten in a few pokes.

"I'm running for reelection this year and I usually respect Paul's advice," said Garn. "But he came back and sat with me one evening after his recent trip to the Philippines and I said, 'What did you advise President Marcos to do?' He said, 'I advised him to hold a snap election. Clear the whole situation up.' And I said to him, 'Well, what if he loses? Are you sure about this?' He seemed very confident.

"Well, you all know what's taken place," said Garn. "So I just want you to know, Paul, that I don't want you to come to Utah. I don't want your advice."

Laxalt, in his response, first teased the dinner organizer, saying, "Weyrich called me and said the dinner needs a little more hype. Do you suppose you could arrange a call from Ferdinand Marcos?" He wound up by answering Goldwater, who is also leaving the Senate at the end of the year.

"Barry and I may be going out to pasture," said Laxalt, "but we're going to hang in there, aren't we?"