Ronald Reagan was there. Also Caspar Weinberger and Ed Meese, all three of them bubbling over with praise.

And the object of their admiration?

"An arch-Republican," said honoree Anne Armstrong in self-description.

But it wasn't just her politics that attracted so many administration heavyweights to the Mayflower Hotel last night.

"She has probably had as great an impact as any woman leader," said Attorney General Meese.

The occasion was the opening day of a three-day conference on "The Future of U.S. Security," sponsored by Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. Armstrong, chairman of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and former ambassador to Great Britain, was toasted by about 300 people -- from the Cabinet, the Hill, big business and CSIS -- at a formal dinner for her years of service. The event was a natural: Armstrong is also chairman of the CSIS Advisory Board and vice chairman of the CSIS Executive Board.

Reagan made a special early appearance at the end of the opening session to laud the guest of honor and make a pitch for the Nicaraguan aid package. He met with vociferous agreement on both counts and left after his half-hour speech.

Later, at the predinner reception, conversation was a mix of the findings of the Challenger commission, the Italian report on the Achille Lauro hijacking and the president's comments.

On the Challenger commission report: "That's a very big subject," said CIA Director William Casey. "It'll have a positive effect. We'll make a fresh start from scratch."

Said Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.): "Out of it we'll see changes in procedures and closer oversight on our part to follow through on recommendations."

Weinberger, following in Reagan's footsteps, took up Nicaragua in his dinner address.

"The Nicaraguan leadership, I think, now makes it clear that they are guided by communist principles; there is really no debate about that that I see," he said. "We should not, therefore, be amazed when they act like communists -- the communists we have already known, when their rhetoric is utopian and their actions brutal."

He also said, "And yes, let us not forget that other cliche', 'One cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs.' To which one can only respond that communist governments have proved adept at breaking eggs, but where is the omelet?"

Kassebaum displayed doubts that Reagan and Weinberger would gain enough votes on the Nicaragua measure.

"I think it's still an uphill fight," she said.

The U.S. Ambassador to NATO, David Abshire, said only that he was "all for the president."

Despite all the talk of current events, the focus ultimately returned to Anne Armstrong.

Leo Cherne, executive director of the Research Institute, offered a catalogue of her qualities.

"Let me quickly say," he began, "Anne is all woman, which in her case includes the striking attributes that are feminine -- beauty, thoughtfulness, generosity, exceptional knowledge of people, dedication to husband and family, together with the firmness of judgment in purpose and, when needed, steel inside the kid gloves she brought from her cultivated young-lady upbringing . . . "

This being Washington, the praises were not free of political jabs.

"Had she been Jerry Ford's candidate for VP in 1976," said Cherne, "Jimmy Carter would have been a wealthier farmer undisturbed by Washington complexities he never mastered."

A few boos went up amid the applause.

Anne Armstrong, a Texan, finished off the night with thanks, particularly to Weinberger.

"And to Cap Weinberger," she said, "not only because he is one of the finest public servants our country has ever seen, but also because he's among my oldest friends in Washington. I remember so well many years ago I was a brand new counselor to the president feeling very nervous and lonely and Cap and Jane invited Tobin and me and my mother to dinner and Jane cooked. And after a little while in the cozy dining room on Capitol Hill I felt that Washington was just about as friendly as Texas."