The faithful came, 900 strong, to memorialize one of their heroes who has, in the recent past, been criticized as much as praised. And in the process of remembering former CIA director William Casey, who died last month, the crowd at last night's tribute dinner celebrated some younger heroes, newly minted by the same scandal that surrounded Casey at his death.

"In these days when so many in this country seem uncertain who the enemy really is, we would do well to remember this thought," said former senator Paul Laxalt as the dinner began. "Let no man throw stones at the valiant who fights to keep us free. Bill Casey was indeed valiant."

Casey's wife Sophia received the evening's warmest applause, but embattled Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, whom many have called upon to step down after his misleading Iran-contra testimony, was also greeted with an effusive round. And then, introduced last, was the guest dinner organizer Max Hugel called "a young individual who demonstrated courage, conviction and commitment to the cause of freedom."

Fawn Hall stood and the applauding crowd stood too.

"Such a wonderful girl," said one older woman to another when Hall entered a predinner reception.

"And such a patriot," came the reply.

The guests, most of whom paid $250 each to attend the Sheraton Washington dinner, included USIA Director Charles Wick, former chief of staff Donald T. Regan, presidential hopefuls Laxalt and Alexander Haig, former CIA director William Colby, former ambassador Clare Boothe Luce, Richard Nixon's former secretary Rose Mary Woods, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) and close to two dozen members of Congress.

TV cameramen mobbed Haig, Hall and Regan. "Any time there's a tribute to Bill Casey, I'll be there," Regan said. Asked if the Iran-contra revelations had diminished Casey's reputation, he said, "You have to wait for the full story to get out, and it hasn't ... Nobody knows the full story."

"Bill Casey was a heck of a lot more honorable than the people who were criticizing him," said Helms.

The plans for the dinner began before Casey died, said Hugel, a longtime friend of the CIA director. Chosen by Casey to serve as his deputy director for operations at the beginning of the first Reagan term, Hugel resigned within months when questions were raised about his financial dealings. He now runs Americans for the Reagan Agenda, which lobbies for conservative causes.

"The people that are here tonight are his friends," said Hugel of Casey.

The question of loyalty to Casey's memory, and whether all of his friends would attend the dinner, arose last week.

Several friends and colleagues of Casey's said they felt the party was "more a memorial to Max Hugel than to my friend Bill Casey," as John Bross, who knew Casey from the Office of Strategic Services in World War II, put it. Richard Helms, CIA director from 1966 to 1973, said he had not given permission for his name to be included on the invitation as a cochairman, and would not attend "because I don't like the way it was handled." Helms' name did not appear on the final program.

Some Republican officials and campaign strategists questioned the wisdom of focusing attention on Casey while the Iran-contra investigation is putting his record under harsh scrutiny. Some expressed concern that Hugel had organized the party more to promote his own business and reputation than to pay tribute to his former boss.

The dinner brought in a profit of $50,000, which was donated to the American Cancer Society. Although dinner coorganizer and Hugel business partner David Carmen had previously told The Washington Post that half the evening's proceeds would go to Hugel's lobbying group, Carmen said at the dinner that the organizers did not intend to use the money for anything other than cancer research. He said that in discussions about the event before Casey died, the CIA head had wanted to split the money between the Cancer Society and Americans for the Reagan Agenda. After his death, Casey's widow asked that the money go to the memorial fund she established to support the Nicaraguan contras, "but we didn't think that would be appropriate," Carmen said.

The confusion, he said, came about because, of the $200,000 raised, $150,000 went to pay for the dinner. "We tried to bend over backwards to make sure people understood the difference between gross and net," he said.

"There was some negative publicity generated," said Carmen, who is the communications director for Laxalt's campaign. "I think that was from some people on {Vice President Bush's} staff, upset by their own gaffe -- at first he wanted to come and then he didn't want to come -- they decided to get some negative publicity -- which is okay by me. They tried to discredit the dinner. I don't think the VP wanted to discredit it."

Last week Carmen told The Washington Times that complaints about the dinner were coming from "the same exact guys who complained when Max was appointed to the CIA; they were career, and they didn't want him there. It'll sort out the friends of Bill Casey and the enemies."

The dinner's round of tributes and letters from absent notables such as Reagan, Bush and Frank Sinatra ended with a film about Casey made for the evening, and then the tearful thanks of Sophia Casey.

"I've had lots of crises, but this one is the toughest one I've faced," she said, her voice cracking. "Just to adjust to it is such a big, hard thing. I never thought that I'd be without Bill Casey. It's such a void."

Then a singer took to the microphone with a song written for the occasion.

"Never afraid of the road ahead," Reagan supporter Jerry Naylor sang, "I followed you down each path you led/ You stood on a mound of clay and turned the wind away ... I remember you well/ And oh the stories I could tell/ Of all the times we spent together/ A bond of love, lasting forever."

It was, Naylor said, "the toughest song ever to sing."

Staff writer Ryan P. Murphy contributed to this report.