There are three ways to succeed at the Gridiron Dinner.

* Make fun of yourself.

"My name is Donald T. Regan," said Donald T. Regan, White House chief of staff and Republican speaker at the annual inside-Washington powerfest Saturday night. "The 'T' stands for throw-weight."

* Make more fun of yourself.

"Frankly, I don't mind not being president," Democratic speaker Edward Kennedy told the crowd of 600 at the Capital Hilton. "I just mind that someone else is."

* Be Ronald Reagan.

"Can you imagine that?" Ronald Reagan said about Clint Eastwood's run for mayor of Carmel, Calif. "What makes him think a middle-aged movie actor who's played with a chimp could have a future in politics?"

The Gridiron Club's annual dinner is an archetypal Washington tradition. Members of the country's political, journalistic and corporate elite gather together for white tie, beef and inside jokes, laugh at satire that doesn't really sting, and pretend they're all just great ld,10 sw,-2 sk,2 pals letting their collective hair down. The Slap

At this event, timeliness is all.

Three days after Sondra Gotlieb, wife of the Canadian ambassador, slapped her social secretary in public, do you actually think the Gridiron wouldn't take note?

"Welcome to Washington, D.C., now known as the slap-happiest capital of the world," Gridiron president Phil Geyelin began.

Yes, Sondra Gotlieb was there. Her husband Allan was also present, although he had originally planned to be in Canada on business that evening. He did not, however, want her to brave the evening alone, and so on Saturday afternoon they squeezed him in.

Not everyone found the subject a humorous one.

"They're rather tasteless," said advice purveyor Abigail Van Buren, otherwise known as Dear Abby, of the slap jokes in the air. "I wouldn't laugh at something like that . . . There's an undercurrent of sadness to it -- an unfortunate, regrettable event which is not funny." What Is the Gridiron, Anyway?

The Gridiron is what being inside of inside Washington is all about.

The 101-year-old club of 60 journalists exists solely to hold the annual dinner, a supposedly off-the-record affair where members bring the high and mighty to sit at long tables and listen to songs written and performed by the club. The guests include much of the Cabinet, the president and vice president and a good sampling from the Senate and House. The show is punctuated by speeches (one given by a Democrat, one by a Republican and one by the president) and followed by a variety of smoke-filled-suite parties.

But this isn't all just amateur theatrics. There are ringers: ghostwriters for the speeches and a troupe of Gridiron Limited Members, people who have nothing to do with the news business and everything to do with being able to sing.

"Whatever Nancy wants, Nancy gets . . ." sang one of the Limited Members to the tune of "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets." I simply want What Ronnie aims for And pass the word Who gets the blame for . . . A New Don Regan?

The Gridiron has been, in the past, a sort of humorous Lourdes -- those saddled with a crippled reputation come to seek a miracle cure. In 1982, Nancy Reagan performed a self-mocking rendition of "Second Hand Rose," with the words changed to "Second Hand Clothes." That night, many now say, blunted criticism of her as a woman only interested in clothes and fancy china.

Saturday night, the question was obvious. Would White House strong-man Don Regan, who is not famous for his sense of humor, pull a "Second Hand Clothes"?

He certainly prepared for the evening, drafting a team of four experienced Gridiron hands to ghostwrite -- including Democratic columnist Mark Shields; former White House speechwriter Landon Parvin, who created Nancy Reagan's routine; George Bush's press secretary Marlin Fitzwater; and White House deputy press secretary Pete Roussel -- and meeting several times to work on the jokes and go through dress rehearsals.

Which was a good idea, because just before he took to the stage, a Gridiron singer swathed in Rambo-like muscles offered an introduction in the form of a song to the tune of "My Way." I learned from the Marines And from a giant corporation Just how to take command And how to guide a mighty nation. I took the pres-dent's hand And modestly, and in a shy way I said to Ron, "Just follow Don, And do it my way."

Then, the real Regan.

"I've come this evening to set the record straight," he said. "You know the things they say about me. They say I'm arrogant. I'm not arrogant. I just believe there's no human problem that couldn't be solved -- if people would simply do as I tell 'em . . .

"Although I must admit, I do identify with the wisdom of that sensitive philosopher and car dealer Lee Iacocca, who said, 'If only I had a little humility, I'd be perfect' . . .

"And related to that, people often ask me how Sam Donaldson can be so abrasive and overbearing. Well, tonight I can reveal for the first time . . . SAM DONALDSON IS MY SON!"

Before the final run-through last week, Parvin said, "I don't think the Gridiron can change anything. All it can do is at least clear the air. Also, over a long period of time humor can help humanize a person."

Gray & Co. Vice President Frank Mankiewicz has only attended one Gridiron ("I've seen one -- I've seen them all!") but often contributes to the speeches, as he did this year for Kennedy.

"The worst thing that can happen is people say you're dull, and that's not so awful," he said before the dinner, which he had no plans to attend. "But if you tell two or three jokes people remember, the next time someone says, 'He's a real son of a bitch,' someone else who saw you joke will say, 'Well, I don't know. He seems like a pretty good guy to me.' " Hot Jokes

In New York, they collect the latest designer dresses and invitations to trendy clubs. In Washington, they collect the latest jokes, and Mark Shields and Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) spent the night taking notes.

In: the Marcoses; the contras; the Marcoses; Kennedy's weight ("They say Teddy's moving toward the middle," said Regan of Kennedy. "Of course, everything on Teddy is moving toward the middle"); Lee Iacocca; Pat Buchanan; and the Marcoses ("I also think some of George's new conservative friends may be a little too far right," said Regan of George Bush. "Their idea of the homeless is Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos").

Out: as always, anything with a sexual over- or undertone; jokes at the farmers' expense.

Last year, with the farm crisis in the headlines, Reagan quipped that the farmers, instead of grain, should be sent to the Soviet Union. This was not well received. In an ode to Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, the club sang Saturday, "Here's how to cure the farmers' pain/ Export the farmers, not the grain." No report on Reagan's reaction. Absent but not Forgotten

Lee Iacocca was not there.

"Have you considered Iacocca?" sang a man attired in a silver Statue of Liberty outfit. The song, directed to the Democratic Party, was sung to the tune of the Carioca from "Flying Down to Rio." I wrote a book and that's no jok-a I sold more copies than the Bible And I'm liable to sell more. I hear that Donald Regan's smilin' He kicked me off of Ellis Island They'll use my nickels for a hotel Call it Hodel's Golden Door. You're burning for Lee Iacocca To fix up your poor, tarnished crown. You're yearning for Lee Iacocca But if I accept, it may look like I'm stepping down. King of the Gridiron

In the Reagan era, everyone knows who's the winner at the Gridiron. Unlike previous presidents who hated the event and didn't manage to attend them all, Ronald Reagan loves the Gridiron. And the Gridiron loves Ronald Reagan.

"Before I refuse to take questions, I have an opening statement," he began.

"It's hard to best the president," said former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter. "He lives on his own level."

Attorney and Platonic Ideal of the Washington Insider Clark Clifford, who has been going to the dinner since the flood, said, "The president, as always, was very gracious and smooth in his delivery."

Reagan hit all the favorite self-deprecating Reagan topics: his age, the movies, his critics, the press. The king of the Gridiron even gave a little joint performance with his queen.

"Come here a minute," Reagan prodded Nancy Reagan, who sat down the head table a ways. "Say something nice about the press. Anything. A word. Just one word . . ."

Nancy Reagan paused and paused some more, playing along.

"I'm thinking!" she finally said. "I'm thinking!"

And while he was at it, why not defuse White House communications chief Pat Buchanan's comment that those who opposed contra aid were on the side of the communists?

"I listened to every side," Reagan said about the debate over funding the contras. "I brought in everyone, every point of view. I even lined them up in the office -- all who favored aid on one side, all who were against it on the other. And there were Pat Buchanan and Cap Weinberger standing there all alone, facing all those commie pinkos."

But there were a few who thought Reagan seemed tired (which might be explained by the fact that he didn't go on stage until almost 11:30). Kennedy stole the show, they said, and Regan was good, too, but Reagan's timing was off.

Club member Charles McDowell of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, groaned. "That's what they say every year." Who Was There

Caspar Weinberger. Warren Burger. Marion Barry. Martha Layne Collins. The ambassadors of Italy, England, France, Israel, China. Jesse Jackson. Clare Boothe Luce. Ann Landers. Tom Brokaw. T. Boone Pickins. Jim Brady. A bunch of club members' wives and the wives of guests of club members who did not attend the dinner but waited outside for the postdinner parties to begin. Who or What They Came With

Dear Abby came with UPI's Helen Thomas, as she has every year since Thomas became a member.

Helen Thomas came with a Pan Am bag full of those mysterious things actors need. In the show, she played actress and congressional testifier Sally Field.

The wives came late with each other and programs from the Kennedy Center. What They Did

Jesse Jackson made frequent trips down to the lobby, where he met a receiving line of hotel employes and made some telephone calls. During intermission, he traveled to the head table and spoke to Nancy and Ronald Reagan for what one observer said looked like 10 minutes. At 11, he left the hotel.

Dear Abby and Ann Landers spent the evening looking like each other. Early on, they were seen walking through the halls of the hotel, sequined arm in beaded arm, searching for the ladies room and delighting the Secret Service.

The wives looked tired. The Kennedy Tradition

"In 1958 my brother spoke, and I came with Bobby, too," said Kennedy, who had himself addressed the Gridiron in the early '70s, as he fled immediately after the dinner ended.

"It's always an enjoyable evening," he said. And did his speech add to the enjoyment?

"That's for others to evaluate," he said, ever the politician. "It's always an enjoyable evening."

Boston TV commentator and satirist Dick Flavin, who helped former Kennedy aid Bob Shrum and Kennedy staff members write the senator's speech, was a little nervous.

"Teddy has two problems," he said last week. "He tends to giggle before the goddam punch line comes, and he telegraphs his punches. That's why Reagan is so good -- he gives the speech in mock seriousness then springs the punches. Teddy, when he thinks something is funny, he giggles."

But this time, either Kennedy was not amused or Flavin's coaching paid off and he controlled the giggles.

"It's not true that when boys or girls in our family are 1 year old, they are given their first fundraiser," he said. "It's not true that on their first day in school they start working the room, or that on the second day they promise the teacher a living wage. But it is true that on the third day they are assigned a congressional district . . .

"By the way, I do notice the fact that President Reagan keeps on quoting President Kennedy," he said. "Just the other day, he did it again -- 'Ich bin ein contra.' " Robert Novak's Night

Conservative columnist and club member Robert Novak had so much fun.

"I AM SOMEBODY!" he bellowed when playing Jesse Jackson on stage.

"I'm Patrick J. Buchanan, assistant to the president in charge of anticommunism and spine-stiffening," he announced several scenes later.

"Jesse came backstage and jived with me a little bit," Novak said after the show, "kidded me a bit. I like doing the Jackson part -- I only wished it was longer."

Jackson claimed to be "caught a little off guard" at Novak's line. "Frankly, it was a kind of uncomfortable feeling."

Buchanan, who like most government guests ran down the stairs before the postparty parties started, said he wasn't surprised to be contender for the evening's Most Ribbed.

"I anticipated a few," he said, "and I wasn't disappointed."