Sisterhood overcomes all.

It mows down controversy, cuts through disappointment, scoffs at unfulfilled expectations and arrives at a place not larded with harsh judgment. Last night that place was the National Museum of Women in the Arts, where the spouses of black lawmakers paid a special tribute to former Illinois senator Carol Moseley-Braun.

"She is very deserving to be honored tonight," said Lessie Price, a city councilwoman in Aiken, S.C. "I was very disappointed that she wasn't reelected. Many of us have asked since, 'What could have gone wrong?' "

In the larger world of politics, Moseley-Braun is already history, the only incumbent Democratic senator to lose a seat in the '98 elections, vanquished by Republican Peter Fitzgerald amid nagging questions about her personal and campaign finances and her problematic meeting with the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha a few years back.

But in the welcoming world of sisterhood, Moseley-Braun remains a representation of dreams realized: first black woman to ever serve in the nation's grandest deliberative body, the most celebrated winner in what became known as the "Year of the Woman," 1992.

The evening, dubbed a "Celebration of Leadership," was hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Spouses. It was one of the kickoff affairs for this week's 29th annual legislative conference of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the nonprofit educational and research arm of black lawmakers. Every year, the conference--a grab bag of workshops and social events--attracts African Americans from across the country who strategize during the day and party till dawn.

Last night's affair was rather subdued at the outset, the crowd arriving late, likely because of the rain and dire warnings of hurricane madness. Things picked up later, but much later. Politicians and lawyers and business folk mingled under sparkling chandeliers and helped themselves to the buffet table of assorted pastas while waiters went around offering trays of treats. A crab cake? "Yes," said Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), "I have to help the Maryland economy."

Six members of the black caucus were also honored last night. They received the Cheerios Health Leader Award from General Mills for their work on health issues. But Moseley-Braun was the star. It is customary for the caucus to honor departing members with a dinner or salute at its annual conference, but Moseley-Braun missed hers last year because her defeat came after the gathering.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), chair of this year's conference, recalled her reaction in Dallas when she learned Moseley-Braun had scored a surprise victory in her 1992 Democratic primary race. "I was so excited, I was jumping up in my own bed. I could hardly sleep."

Though she was in her own race for a House seat, Johnson helped raise money for Moseley-Braun's general election contest. "We treasured the fact that she was there," said Johnson. "She was responsive to us. She let it be known that she wanted to be a part of us. When we had legislation, we consulted her. She would often tell us who would be the best Senate sponsor."

Moseley-Braun had her notable moments, some recalled last night. She was the Senate's most forceful advocate of rebuilding crumbling schools and persuaded President Clinton to take up the cause. And early in her term, she shamed the Senate into killing a Jesse Helms proposal to renew the patent on the flag insignia of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) would later call that day one of the most extraordinary of his career.

Now Moseley-Braun is about to embark on another life. She hopes. President Clinton is reportedly set to nominate her as ambassador to New Zealand. "Well, I'm in ambassador school," she said. "I'm just waiting for the nomination."

Waiting is hardly the word for it. She is downright giddy about the prospect. "This is real, real important to me. I think I will be able to represent the United States' interests with kind of a new face of diplomacy--kinder, gentler diplomacy."

She has never been to New Zealand, she says, "but I'm a naturalist. I'm a birder. I'm an archaeology buff. I love to swim."

Asked if she had reflected on her Senate defeat--Fitzgerald spent nearly $12 million on a TV ad campaign reminding voters of investigations into her finances and questioning her ethics and record--Moseley-Braun shook her head. "Not enough emotional distance yet."

Does she miss the Senate? She unfurled a broad smile.

"Do I look any worse for the wear?"

She said she had recently run into several of her former colleagues--Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Robert Bennett (R-Utah)--"and they're all anxious to see my nomination."

With that, she excused herself. There was a line that had formed to talk to her. Pictures were being snapped. She was once again a marvelous symbol. In the Senate, Moseley-Braun often felt the weight of her symbolism. She received a staggering 500 requests a week to give speeches, attend meetings and grace receptions--more invitations than any of her colleagues. The media scrutiny also was intense and that, combined with her own missteps, exacted a toll.

Sensing that she had let many of her supporters down, Moseley-Braun ran an unusual ad during her reelection campaign in which she looked into the camera and said: "I know I've made some mistakes and disappointed some people. But I want you to know that I've always tried to do what's best for Illinois."

No apologies needed last night.

She was introduced as "our star."

"We miss her," said Rep. Johnson, "But we know she is going on to great things."

CAPTION: Nigerian first lady Stella Obasanjo, left, and last night's guest of honor Carol Moseley-Braun, center, with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

CAPTION: Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Evon Ervin at last night's celebration.