WETA, the Washington public television station, threw a big lunch yesterday on the Hill to celebrate its 25th anniversary, and not only was the room packed, but the people there were definitely prime time. And the official anniversary of the station isn't even until October.

The draw was not the curried chicken salad in avocado boats.

"I'm really here for Max," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). "I really didn't know it was WETA. Sorry."

Stevens was talking about Max Kampelman, WETA's board chairman from 1963 to 1970 and originator of "Washington Week in Review," the longest-running news program on PBS.

He also happens to be the chief U.S. arms negotiator.

"He's a national asset," said Stevens, pointing to Kampelman and referring to his work in negotiating with the Soviet Union.

"No, he's a national asset," said Kampelman, pointing to Stevens, cochairman of the Senate delegation that monitors the Geneva talks.

Said Aaron Goldman, WETA board member, "Max has been such an important guy in foreign relations -- negotiating with those Russians. That ain't easy."

Kampelman was also an important guy at the lunch, there to receive WETA's first Public Affairs Award.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) arrived at 12:29 p.m., in time for the tail end of the reception, and boomed "Max! Congratulations!" before he left at 12:30 p.m.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) made it in a little earlier, and grabbed WETA President Ward Chamberlin's hand to shake it. After the backslapping, and without prompting, he said, "My line to Ward Chamberlin was to keep the verbiage down today. You know, when you get a bunch of senators to speak . . . "

He also took time to toot WETA's horn. His favorite WETA shows?

"Those dealing with nature," Warner said, "with the environment. I stayed up last night watching one for the fifth time. On the whales. I relax with them."

*Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D-Neb.) came, he said, because Kampelman is "an old friend and one who's been before our Foreign Relations Committee from time to time." Of WETA, he said he didn't "get too much time to watch TV, but in documentaries they're above and beyond the call of duty."

He didn't seem to be thinking of dashing out.

"I could be upstairs reading some papers and preparing for some legislation, but I'll just have to stay after school to do that."

Especially since the lunch lasted two hours.

Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) ducked out a little early, but many of the guests -- Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.), Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), former Alexandria mayor Charles Beatley, former Virginia governor Chuck Robb, Swedish Ambassador Wilhelm Wachtmeister, U.S. News and World Report's David Gergen and actor E.G. Marshall -- were there to the end.

After some song and dance satire by the Capitol Steps, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) introduced Warner. In his presentation to Kampelman, Warner said, "We have today in our presence a great American. No contemporary American has made more of his life by what he has given than the man we honor today, Max Kampelman."sk

Kampelman, in turn, spoke of the importance of public television for its educational value and its alternative programming, and ended with a story.

"I would like to conclude, if I may, with a Yiddish tale," he said. "It is the tale of a learned rabbi who went to heaven and faced his Maker. In the Hasidic tradition of questioning and challenging, the rabbi asked God why he found it so necessary to have people by the billions praise him continually, many, many times a day.

" 'Why do you need these countless words of praise? It is not becoming,' the rabbi said. The Lord patiently responded, 'I want my children to pray to me because if they were not so occupied they would be praising and honoring one another, and that could be corrupting.'

" . . . With that Yiddish tale in mind," Kampelman said, "I would like to conclude by saying may God bless you all."