"Power as an experience is as intense as sex," John J. McLaughlin once told a reporter. "Power is more pervasive and unremitting. Sex has periods of remission."

Thirteen years later, five years after the birth of the public television show that bears his name, McLaughlin may know as much about the experience of power as anyone in Washington. Last night the former Jesuit priest greeted a gold-star crowd at a party marking the anniversary of "The McLaughlin Group," a party that illustrated the difficulty of deciding who pursues whom more hotly in the circular game that is politics and press.

It's not everyone who can draw Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), New York Mayor Edward I. Koch, presidential spokesman MarlinFitzwater, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, CIA Director William H. Webster, Canadian Ambassador Allan Gotlieb, and GOP Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf. Anyone doubting that the Ritz-Carlton cocktail party was the hottest obeisance of the new season need only know that Fawn Hall attended, on the arm of her omnipresent lawyer Plato Cacheris.

There was political consultant Roger Stone, who is working for Jack Kemp's presidential campaign, expressing the unsurprising opinion that George Bush's Monday campaign declaration was "a little blah." There was lawyer Leonard Garment (in his capacity as "good friend" to Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork) reiterating that the Senate's consideration of Bork has brought on "the dirtiest campaign in American political history," and that the battle is "by no means over." There was Koch, distancing himself from longtime friend Bess Myerson, who was indicted last week on charges that she tried to influence the judge presiding over her lover's divorce trial ("What she did, for which she was fired {from her city job}, was disgraceful and violated all ethical procedures"). There was Abrams, controversial point man for the administration's contra aid policy, expressing tight-lipped approval of the Nobel Prize awarded yesterday to Costa Rican President Oscar Arias for the peace initiative the administration is in the midst of abandoning.

And there was Fawn Hall, just being Fawn Hall -- still the most electric guest in Washington. While unwilling to be interviewed (she was stunned by the attention paid her at last spring's White House Correspondents' Dinner, she said, and has since grown more cautious), she happily complied with photographers' directives as she chatted with former White House communications director Patrick J. Buchanan.

If it is hard to remember that McLaughlin was once a Jesuit priest, it is harder still to remember that he was once -- until 1970 -- a Democrat. His crowd last night was largely the Republican establishment, with a smattering of such Democratic stalwarts as Reps. John D. Dingell (Mich.) and Pat Schroeder (Colo.), Sen. Ernest Hollings (S.C.) and former party chair Charles Manatt.

Heading a receiving line that forced some of these worthies to cool their heels for a decent interval in the hallway, McLaughlin was loving every minute of it.

"There are those who say, how did you reach five years?" he said, previewing the punch line he would later deliver, deadpan, in a brief toast: "But I tell them what my friend Bill Casey once said to me: 'I believed.' "

A lot of Washington insiders watch the show, which is now broadcast on 230 public broadcasting stations and on four NBC stations. A lot of people enjoy seeing a round table of men (and an occasional female guest) who spend as much time browbeating each other as they do expressing opinion.

That still doesn't explain why so many of the powerful turned out to pay their respects. McLaughlin said sweetly, "I think they like the spirit of the show, and feel that it's intellectually honest and unpredictable, high-spirited and high-charged, and also that they can have some laughs here."

Roger Stone was more forthcoming. "Half the people in this room are sources of the people on the show," meaning McLaughlin and his regulars, Jack Germond, Robert Novak and Morton Kondracke. "And the other half of the people in this room say they're sources."

Another consultant agreed, noting that a good many people tune in for the analyses of "who's up and who's down."

"It can't hurt to be here," he said, "and it may help."

Describing the show as "one of the best of its kind," the garrulous mayor of New York gave a pro's assessment that "it's kind of a speed marathon ... You can't shut any of them up."

Said Ambassador Gotlieb, "It's a great program. I get a tremendous bang out of it ... I came in order to find out what's going on."

When Webster was asked why he came to the party -- and why he thought so many others did -- he showed a subtlety befitting his post: "Ah, you want real intelligence, don't you?"

The presence of Arturo Cruz Jr. -- son of contra leader Arturo Cruz and former beau of Hall -- was cause for much speculation. "I have the greatest respect for Ms. Hall," said Cruz, "but no, I do not see her {anymore}. But she looks elegant and distinguished. She always looks elegant and distinguished."

The most blase' person present, probably, was McLaughlinite Germond, who has been absent from the show for weeks in support of striking members of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians. After he told McLaughlin he would not be able to cross the picket line to record the show, Germond said, "Somebody in his office -- I think {McLaughlin} was behind it -- called to tell me that the picket line was out on Nebraska Avenue," and that, because the line was not right up against the building, "I could drive through the line rather than walking through the line. They sort of missed the point."

Does he look forward to returning? "I look forward to picking up my check every week," replied Germond. He said of the show, "I enjoy it. It's fun. As long as no one takes it seriously. Television talk shows generally get more attention than they deserve."

He looked around a room full of people taking the show very seriously indeed.

One of them, former Reagan aide Dennis Thomas, summarized, "If politics really is sports, this is the home-town team."