Old hands in Washington talk about the time they began to suspect that young Sen. John F. Kennedy had large ambitions. His Christmas card that year was a lavish one on rich paper stock featuring an outsize seal of the U.S. Senate.

Some years later, pols and pundits took notice when they suddenly began getting season's greetings from a national unknown, the governor of Georgia.

The lesson: Anyone who looks closely can learn volumes from the holiday mailbag. Packed with envelopes from lobbyists and think tanks, candidates and officeholders, trade associations and corporations, it teems with ingratiation and symbolism. While a rough survey suggests that the number of greetings may be down this year, the sampling is as redolent as ever of Washington's own utilitarian tradition: A holiday is just a holiday, but an agenda is worth a 22-cent stamp.

Which presidential candidate, for example, is tired enough of being tarred as an ultraliberal that he quoted the late general Omar Bradley on his Christmas card? (Sen. Paul Simon {D-Ill.} -- but it's Bradley in an Adlai Stevenson mood.)

Which senator faces a race next fall in which his opponent may make an issue of his age? (Seventy-nine-year-old Democrat Quentin N. Burdick of North Dakota. His card pictures him and his wife Jocelyn walking at a vigorous clip past the capital's cherry blossoms in full bloom.)

Which industries have the most urgent stake in policy decisions now in the works? (Airlines and aerospace companies, which an unscientific survey suggests have bombarded officialdom and the media with the most and the priciest postal good will.)

It wouldn't do, of course, to play this game with too much seriousness -- even if some of the senders do. Some messages are overt solicitations ("The National Congress of American Indians Wishes You a Peaceful Holiday Season and Asks You to Send President Reagan a Holiday Message: Free the Yakima Fishermen by Christmas"), and others are more general variations on the sender's theme (the libertarian Cato Institute's card salutes "Peace and Free Enterprise"). But surely holiday levity is the only appropriate response when a political consultant (Gary Nordlinger, Nordlinger Associates) sends his "Best Wishes for a Happy Holiday Season and a Victorious Election Year!"

Pride Goeth "You know all those cards that say 'JOY,' with a big exclamation mark?" asked one Washington wag. "Well, Gary Hart should be sending out one saying 'HUBRIS!' "

In practice, there is no dearth of hubris in the card sweepstakes this year. Consider the missive of Russo, Watts & Rollins, the Sacramento and D.C.-based firm of former Reagan administration political director Ed Rollins: It is a lovely watercolor painting of the White House, still the residence of Rollins' one-time boss. (The Reagans themselves have fittingly sent a Thomas William Jones watercolor of the State Dining Room at Christmas, with the presidential seal and their "warm wishes for joyous holiday season and a happy and healthy new year.")

Or consider Hart's fellow Colorado Democrat, Rep. Patricia Schroeder. Her post card, a homemade pen-and-ink/collage with photographs of herself and her family spilling out of the Capitol dome, bears an inscription from Stephen Vincent Bene't ("Our earth is but a small star in the great universe, yet of it we can make, if we choose, a planet unvexed by war ...") followed by the observation, "Many of you worked tirelessly this summer to make the planet better." (Among them, no doubt, those who worked on Schroeder's exploratory campaign for the presidency.)

Finally, there is Simon's card. Simon, one of whose tasks as a presidential candidate is to reach out to the center while retaining the loyalty of Iowa's leftmost liberals, runs this 1948 quote from Bradley: "We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount ... Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living."

He then adds, in best Plain Paul fashion, a "Dear Friends" letter: "On September Sheila married Perry Knop, a southern Illinois farmer and graduate student," it says in plain black print that looks as if it was typewritten. It continues through the health of Paul and Jeanne Simon's respective mothers, the "mixture of awe and eagerness" with which the Simons approach the campaign, their prayer "that in the coming years our nation and world can be better for future generations because of what you and we do."

Signed "Sincerely," and sent to 170,000 of his closest friends.

At the other end of the spectrum, the award for political cool goes to Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), one of the few senators to confine himself to "second strike" cards -- return greetings to those who send him one. Mail him a holiday card, and you may receive in return a run-of-the-mill shot of the Capitol Christmas tree with a handwritten note saying, "Your thoughtful holiday greeting was appreciated by the Nunn family. We hope that this Christmas season brings rich blessings to you and your loved ones ... Sincerely, Sam." You would be well advised, however, not to subject the handwriting to the damp thumb test.

Being Politic

Politicians' cards essentially fall into two schools, the family photograph and the generic shot of the Capitol. A very few members -- notably Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) -- managed to marry the two genres. Graham is shown with his unnamed wife and four unnamed daughters on the Capitol steps, on the front side of a post card signed "The Bob Graham Family." Domenici is shown on the Capitol lawn, with the dome in the background; he and his wife Nancy hold a poorly lighted mass that on close scrutiny proves to be an arrangement of peppers indigenous to New Mexico.

Sen. Bob Stafford (R-Vt.) and his wife Helen by coincidence sent the same watercolor painting of the Capitol chosen by Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.). But Coelho added considerable frills. Inside is a photograph of himself, his wife and two daughters in front of a fireplace, and on the back is a printed notice: "The inside photo was taken in the office of the majority whip, which has the only working fireplace on the House side of the Capitol." (It is taken as a sign of major ambition any time a member of Congress mentions in a Christmas card his position in the leadership. Coelho gets bonus points for managing it the first year after he was elected whip, and for the passably smooth way the setting of the photograph provides an excuse.)

Other members of Congress also pursued this new custom of supplying explanatory text, sometimes in meticulous detail. To wit, this one from Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.): "The 1987 Quayle family Christmas photo was taken at the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial located on Roosevelt Island, Potomac River, adjacent to the George Washington Memorial Parkway," it begins. "Roosevelt Island is a wildlife preserve, containing 91 acres, 411 types of plants, 76 species of birds, 20 varieties of animals and 9 types of reptiles. Our family has often enjoyed the many nature trails that criss-cross the island."

The trailblazers in this school, however, are unquestionably Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) and his wife Harriet, the only members of the congressional family in this unscientific sampling to title their own photograph. On the card's cover, the well-swaddled Presslers squint through what appears to be a blizzard; inside, under the title "Snowstorm," the card bears this block of text: "Veteran's Day Snowstorm, 1987. Larry and Harriet Pressler are shown here on the U.S. Capitol grounds enjoying a rare November snowstorm which dumped 12 inches of snow on Washington, D.C. The snow-covered evergreen tree behind them is a Black Hills Spruce which Senator Pressler brought to Washington in 1983 from the Black Hills National Forest and planted on the U.S. Capitol grounds. This hearty spruce has grown more than 3 feet since its planting and now measures over six feet tall."

A Family Affair

Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) is nearly legendary for the widespread distribution of his family's likenesses at Christmas time. Past years have seen Jack, Joanne, Jeffrey, Jennifer, Judith and James Kemp on a lawn, in a glade, on a snowy slope, each time accompanied by a bit of Scripture; this year, the Kemps migrated indoors, added a picture of Kemp grandchildren Kyle and Kory, and selected Psalm 100 as the text.

One wonders what constituents in, say, Pittsburgh might make of multimillionaire Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), whose family posed in the midst of what looks a lot like a ski vacation, sporting nifty ski togs. Perhaps the wisest politicians try for an indeterminate or folksy background -- Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and wife Elizabeth leaning on a column, Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and family in what might be a public park, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) with three generations of family in an amiably amateurish shot taken at the home of his son and daughter-in-law.

Of all the family cards that found their way to Washington this year, only the Malcolm Forbes family, pictured on the runway in front of Forbes' jet (the one with "FORBES: Capitalist Tool" on the tail) went all the way and provided, on the flip side, an ID key to the photograph in the form of numbered silhouettes, as seen below gang photos in high school yearbooks, in magazines and even with this story.

But a great many other families achieved double digits by including children and grandchildren, while still others included their pets as well. A black and white photograph of the family of Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) -- "Al, Tipper, Karenna, Kristin, Sarah + Albert III" has a woolly white dog on Tipper's lap; a color post card from Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.) shows wife Sheila, sons Joe and Matt, a football and three dogs).

But only Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) named and explained the dog on his lap: "... Pepper is shown with his beautiful pet 'Peppe,' an All-American breed," says a note on the back of the card. "Peppe, at six weeks of age, was a gift from the North Shore Animal League (N.Y.) in July 1987."

Getting the Point

Among the least cuddly cards, on the other hand, is the greeting of John M. Snyder, head of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. "PEACE BE WITH YOU!," he writes emphatically, and elaborates on his own ideas about how peace might come about. "The reverse," he writes of his card, "depicts handgun marksman St. Gabriel Possenti in action. When St. Gabriel faced marauders in Isola, Italy in 1859, he dispatched a lizard in the road with one shot. His facility with handguns so impressed the marauders that he was able to deliver the entire village from their grasp. Consequently, I have requested the Vatican to designate him Patron of Handgunners."

A similar note is struck -- perhaps with less intent -- by the GOP consulting firm Keene, Shirley & Associates, whose card is a painting that depicts a pair of hunters blasting geese out of the sky.

Political consultants, like other businesses, seem to be among the last to cut greeting cards from their budgets. Nordlinger, whose firm works with Democrats, prides himself on creating a card every year that speaks to current events -- and often mimics a television commercial. This year's caricatures the eight justices of the Supreme Court, casting them as participants in Miller Lite's beer commercial. Instead of saying "tastes great" and "less filling," as the antagonists in the ad do, the justices, standing over the empty ninth chair that awaits a new appointee, are saying "Let's wait" and "Needs filling."

Professional and trade associations are, as always, well represented in the mailbag, too, with the National Association of College and University Business Officers (its card aptly produced by Prudent Publishing of Englewood, N.J.) vying with the International Food Information Council and the New York Cotton Exchange. Cheekiest among these is the National Association of Manufacturers, whose card asks, "You Don't Really Still Believe in Elves ... Do You?" Inside is the slogan, "Manufacturers Make It."

The higher they fly, it seems, the more elaborate the card. United Airlines thoughtfully wishes you a joyous holiday season with a painting of the place you may, if you are unlucky, spend most of your holiday -- United's new terminal at O'Hare. Fokker Aircraft U.S.A. Inc. wishes you season's greetings in four different languages. Fingers crossed, Orbital Sciences Corp. salutes "A new year ... A new beginning" with an eerily lifelike painting called "America Flies Again," depicting "the 1988 launch of Space Shuttle Discovery." And SPOT Image Corp. offers a spectacular "specially processed" -- if unseasonal -- aerial photograph of Cape Cod taken by its remote sensing satellite.

Finally, health care organizations -- hospitals, lobbyists, associations, both national and regional -- are among the most visible businesses on the holiday cheer scene. These are perhaps the only businesses in America that do not delude themselves that people want reminding, at holiday time, of what their business is. As a result, there is a heavy reliance on doves and other fowl; only the George Washington University Medical Center chose a photograph -- the school's bust of Washington with a Santa hat perched rakishly atop.

By Chance

Finally, the year's best coincidence: Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the congressman who routinely excoriates the Democratic majority, has mailed out the same message as the Democratic National Committee.

The two cards, from the same manufacturer, differ slightly in design. But both are all-type cards bearing the regal legend, "The friendship of those we serve is the foundation of our progress."

Only in Washington.