"Hello," said Malcolm Forbes, capitalist tool.

"Hello," said Mikhail Gorbachev, Communist Party leader.

That quick meet yesterday at a State Department luncheon in Gorbachev's honor was just one of the almost surreal encounters in the Soviet leader's all-out attempt to reach beyond official Washington to the country at large.

As Forbes, the well-known motorcyclist, left the receiving line, he was asked about the economic prospects for Smith and Keynes in the land of Marx, Engels and Lenin. "Well, right now I think they're still contemplating creeping capitalism," Forbes said. "I think they ought to leap into it."

Although no one seems to be calling the Soviet Union a "paradise" in the fashion of some intellectuals of the 1930s, leaders of all sorts who met Gorbachev yesterday were fairly slack-jawed in describing Gorbachev's "almost American" ability to look his audience square in the eye and speak his mind. Between meetings with President Reagan and other governmental leaders, Gorbachev lunched at the State Department, spent the afternoon meeting with media heavies at the Soviet Embassy and hosted a dinner for the Reagans later in the evening.

The new Great Communicator had arrived -- this one the son of farmers from the town of Privolnoye, a Soviet leader who had married his university sweetheart, a stylish, intelligent woman from the Siberian city of Rubtsovsk.

"I'm not tired, I'm not jet-lagged," Gorbachev said at one point. "I'll rest later." All day long he seemed a man not only with an agenda of political reform, but also with an extraordinary sense of his own power of persuasion and wit.

Seated between Helena Shultz and White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker at lunch, Gorbachev charmed a table that included Washington Post editorial page editor Meg Greenfield, PepsiCo Chairman Donald Kendall, philanthropist Brooke Astor and Sens. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.). Lunch was a behemoth spread that included lobster, shrimp, crab, venison, lingonberry sauce and, Americana of Americana, apple pie. Pricey wines were available for the asking.

But Gorbachev never asked for seconds, so preoccupied was he with the conversation at hand. He chatted with Astor about literacy in the Soviet Union and with Kendall about increasing trade with the West. He talked about the problem of moonshiners in Russia at a time when he is trying to wipe out alcoholism, for centuries one of the country's deepest problems. Baker and Nunn laughingly admitted that their home states were premier moonshining centers.

"He's strong, he's tough as hell, and he likes that reputation," said Simpson. "I told him I'd rather deal with someone who comes at you like a Mack truck with six headlights than someone who wishy-washies around. He's not one of those guys with a 2,000-mile stare.

"He can do the small talk with the best of them and then switch right over into the heavy water."

After the Yale Russian Chorus sang Russian songs, everyone remarked on Gorbachev's nifty performance the night before at the White House when he sang "Moscow Nights" as Van Cliburn pounded out the tune on the piano. The Soviet leader was informed that his singing got better reviews than many divas did.

When Gorbachev left the table, he said, "It's been a comfortable circle here."

Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev had entered the State Department holding hands. (She wore a knee-length black dress with a rhinestone buckle. He wore a suit of some sort.) For years Gorbachev has said he is not really out of line with other Soviet leaders, but who could imagine Lenin joking his way through the lingonberry sauce, Stalin holding hands or blocky Chernenko in a snazzy European suit?

The Gorbachevs took their time working the receiving line, talking with all 250 guests. Guests said the Gorbachevs have mastered the art of eye contact, the gentle touch on the sleeve, the little personal comment that is intended to make a huge affair seem so very intime. The Gorbachevs talked especially long with the Kendalls and U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock.

Tipper Gore had such a long conversation with Raisa Gorbachev that both Helena Shultz and a protocol official felt compelled to urge her gently down the line. (Hot rock lyrics never passed their lips. Gore was reportedly discussing a mutual friend -- Irina Dobrynin, the wife of former Soviet ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin.)

Of another guest's extra lingering, one official muttered, "I'm going to give her the hook in a minute if she doesn't move."

The guests included industrialists H. Ross Perot and Donald Trump, ABC journalist Barbara Walters, artist Andrew Wyeth (who sat next to Raisa Gorbachev), Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, Sens. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Albert Gore (D-Tenn.), Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), Dobrynin and House Majority Leader Tom Foley (D-Wash.). ("It took forever for the receiving line to end!" said one guest.) Lunch didn't start until 2:30.

Shultz forbade the press to pepper the general secretary with questions, though Gorbachev, for his part, seemed more than game.

"She's a news reporter, don't tell her anything," Shultz said to Gorbachev as one journalist closed in.

"Then I can't answer any questions," said Gorbachev, smiling.

"You can't even say whether you're enjoying Washington?" the reporter said.

Said Gorbachev, "I'm having a very good time."

Evidently. The smile never left his face.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) was impressed. "He's an inspiring politician. It takes a politician to know a politician. He's a fast learner."

Former secretary of agriculture John Block said, "I'll invite him to my farm next time he's here!"

Nunn was so impressed with Gorbachev's speech at lunch that he took a long stream of notes. Gorbachev said that mankind has had to put up for too long with "a bad peace. This can no longer be tolerated." Gore said he was impressed that Gorbachev spoke about a shift in knowledge from dogma to thinking. "I thought that was an interesting phrase in light of the changes he has been identified with."

As he did Tuesday in his meeting with American intellectuals and artists, Gorbachev stressed the interdependence of nations, the necessity for leaders and intellectuals to heed "the people's" desire for better relations and need for a new kind of U.S.-Soviet relationship in which interests are mutual rather than in perennial conflict.

"Reciprocity and compromise are inevitable," he said in his luncheon speech. "Peace from a position of strength is inherently unstable, whatever anyone might claim. By its very nature, it is based on confrontation whether covert or overt. It is based on the permanent risk of flareups, on the temptation to try and use force."

Gorbachev told Nunn at the table that he admired him for "sticking to his principles," and Nunn returned the compliment later. He called the speech "the most impressive speech I heard him make since he's been here."

The secretary of state spoke, too; in fact, guests said George Shultz seemed genuinely moved by the occasion, regarding it as the celebration of a diplomatic triumph. It was, Shultz himself noted, the first time the leader of the Soviet Union had ever visited the Department of State.

"We must be realistic," Shultz said, "avoiding extremes either of hostility or euphoria through the ups and downs of our relations. The best approach of dealing with one another is one Ben Franklin might have suggested: Be down-to-earth, pragmatic and businesslike in seeking to solve concrete problems."

And yet some guests said Shultz seemed euphoric all afternoon, especially when he shook hands with his opposite number, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

After lunch, Gorbachev's boxy black limo took him back to his embassy, where he met with the heads of American newspaper, television and publishing companies, including: Laurence Tisch of CBS, Ted Turner of Cable News Network, Robert Bernstein of Random House, Katharine Graham of The Washington Post Co., Mortimer Zuckerman of U.S. News & World Report, Jason MacManus of Time and William Hyland, editor of Foreign Affairs.

Gorbachev told the gathering that he was not really so different from Soviet leaders of the past and if people "looked more closely" they'd see he was a "normal person." He denied that he was "some sort of preacher," saying he was "far too pragmatic-minded and realistic" for all that.

Perhaps, perhaps, but in the meantime Gorbachev reminded the media of their power and responsibility.

He said he would grant more interviews if only the Western press would not keep asking "the same old questions" about Jewish emigration, Afghanistan and divisons in the Politburo.

Responding to Zuckerman's question about whether there would be an increased role for the press in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev seemed a bit defensive and said he had seen a French film that stressed the importance of partnership. Criticism without accuracy and balance is not the point. If you make the other side look "silly," he said, it "doesn't help."

And in response to Bernstein's question about human rights, Gorbachev briefly lost his impulse to charm. Indeed, he himself would say after the meeting that his long reply was "perhaps overemotional."

In his reply he admitted there had been "many mistakes, stupidities," but said the United States had no right to impose its version of human rights on the Soviet Union. Suddenly the iron teeth in Gorbachev's smile were evident.

"Only now," he told the media leaders, "after many years has America signed a pact condemning racism; and a pact on economic and social rights, America has not ratified. Why? Who are they to give us moral lectures? Yesterday I told the president, 'Mr. President, you are not the prosecutor, and I am not the accused. We have to strike a balance here, otherwise you won't get anything out of us.'

"If you want to be a prosecutor or a judge of the Soviet Union, I cannot allow this and the people will not allow this. They would not for one day put up with a leader who allowed someone to offend the dignity of the nation and the country. That's my answer to you."

The dinner at the Soviet Embassy in the Reagans' honor began on a slightly edgy note, too. On her way in to the stone building on 16th Street, Nancy Reagan was asked by reporters if she was getting along well with Raisa Gorbachev.

"Yes, of course," she said.

Are you as good friends as the husbands? asked another reporter.

"I never said we weren't," she snapped.

Mrs. Reagan wore black. Mrs. Gorbachev wore gold.

Compared with Tuesday night's gala at the White House, the guest list was official and rather predictable -- Armand Hammer was indeed one of the privileged 70 guests. Although he never got a chance to autograph Joe DiMaggio's baseball at the White House, Gorbachev was able to sign Domenici's copy of "Perestroika."

Lenin would have approved of the dress code. No one wore black tie. But the food sounded as swell as anything served up on Pennsylvania Avenue: caviar, kulebyaka fish pie, chatka crab meat glace', cold suckling pig with horseradish sauce, fish soup, baked fish and shashlik of lamb a la Kars and, for dessert, raspberry parfait.

Coffee and tea just for the asking.

"The food was superb," Hammer said. "They must have flown it all in from Moscow."

The Reagans, Gorbachevs, Bushes, Shultzes, Dobrynin and Shevardnadze sat at the head table, while the rest of the guests, including Pamela Harriman, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and national security adviser Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell sat at tables for 10 elsewhere in the embassy ballroom.

The evening was a time for more convivial talk and, if one chose, a rub of the relic. The embassy served champagne, vodka and wine. Asked how this fit in with the Gorbachev-era slogan that "sobriety is the norm of life," Soviet Embassy Press Secretary Boris N. Malakhov said, "This is the norm of life -- nobody's going to get drunk."

"We will toast with vodka," Anatoliy Dobrynin told Vice President Bush.

"I'm for that," said Bush.

In his toast Reagan said, "Now that you've seen our nation's capital, Mr. General Secretary, I only wish you could have a chance to meet the people who normally work and do business here. Unfortunately, they're all in Iowa and New Hampshire campaigning for my job."

Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), who is chasing the Republican presidential nomination, turned down the invitation to last night's dinner and went instead to meet with members of the state contractors association at a Holiday Inn in Manchester, N.H.

"That wasn't very smart of Dole," Hammer said. "He would have done better to go to the party."

"Gorbachev doesn't get to vote in the primary," Dole noted.

A reporter asked Bush if the summit was good for his own presidential campaign. "Give me a break," he said.

The rest of Reagan's toast was an emotional appeal not only for peace but for "the right to worship according to the dictates of his conscience."

Gorbachev, for his part, spoke as he has all week of the young: "The kids are showing us how we should rid ourselves of prejudices, biased perceptions and drab stereotypes."

He closed with a direct gesture of friendship to the Reagans: "Until we meet in Moscow."

Donnie Radcliffe, Cristina Del Sesto, David Hilzenrath, Nina Killham and Moira Mulligan contributed to this report.