EXACTLY WHERE WE were that night is impossible to recall and who was there is something else no one remembers. But everyone remembers the topic of conversation. It was about a news event, something that had happened the night before, and it was I who said it was unimportant, a trifling incident that would amount in the long run to a big, fat nothing. I was talking about Watergate.

I had my reasons. I figured that no one would break into the headquarters of a major political party for political reasons, that there was probably nothing of value there, that the Republicans wouldn't chance it since they had a comfortable lead anyway, and that in the end it was the sort of thing that just doesn't happen. The whole thing lacked subtlety. It was too blunt.

I thought of that the other day when John Warner, the Republican candidate for senator from Virginia, said he did not mean to say that he had opposed efforts to quicken the pace of integration of the U.S. Navy while he was Navy Secretary. He was apologetic about the remark, clarifying it to the point of confusion, saying that it might cost him the election - "two years down the drain."

He said he misunderstood the question, but he did not say he had said something similar several days before at an interview luncheon at The Washington Post. I, for one, wrote nothing about it at the time because I found it, like Watergate, too blunt to be believable. The interview went like this:

Warner: I've got a record with black Americans which goes back in my public office to my Navy days. There were more opportunities opened up during the period than during the 200 years' history of the Navy.

Question: Didn't Bud (Elmo Zumwalt) do that?

Warner: Now you're talking . . .That's classic thing . . .'Didn't Bud do that? Look some day at the law that controls the Navy. The secondary must sign the orders. And Bud and I clashed as to how far we went. But in the end, it's my signature.

Question: He claims he had to fight you all the way.

Warner: That's true. He did.

Question: He did?

Warner: He did. And if you go back in the relationship between service secretaries and their chiefs of staff, it is a fight. Because the chief always wants more money, the chief always wants to push harder. That's his role, to push, push, push - to obtan more and more for his people and to build.

It is not precisel clear, looking back to the transcript now, exactly what it was that Warner was talking about-whether it was integration or affirmative action or simply making sure that blacks and other minorities got a fair shake in the Navy. I have to tell you, though, that I for one, thought he was talking about integration.

Then, using the same reasoning that led me to dismiss Watergate, I dismissed what Warner said. People just don't say those things. I think the others at the lunch did the same thing. At my rate, nothing was written about it. What complicated matters even further was the fact that Warner's statement came in the middle of a discussion in which he went out of his way to portray himself as a frank and blunt fellow, not to mention a true son of Virginia. You got the feeling that he was overstating the case to show his conservative credentials.

Now this is important because Virginia is a state that calls for suspension of the rules. It is the sort of place where political candidates find it prudent to kiss the rings of the very men who led the fight against school integration and managed, gentlemen though they were to close some school and deprive some children of an education. That, apparently, is the price some people have to pay for oter people's traditions.

You get the feeling that Warner is catering to this Virginia tradition, bending over backward to assure everyone that there is nothing liberal about him, that they should have no doubts simply because he spends some of his time in Georgetown and is married to a movie star. The civil rights advances of his tenure as secretary of the Navy are not-knock on wood-entirely all, his fault.

In this sense, then, it doesn't really matter what Warner actually meant to say. What matters really is what he seems to be saying in tone or implication or whatever you want to call it-that there is a middle ground on human rights. He is, he says, for integration but not necessarily for affirmative action or necessarily other measures. He has to be pushed. He will go along if he has to, but he is not-Virginians breathe easy-an innovator in this area.

What comes across is the notion that Warner himself thinks there is such a thing as moderation on questions of human rights, that you can somehow tell someone to wait and wait and then wait some more lest some fondly held traditions be upset. It is not, mind you, that you are on the side of the bigots. It is that you don't want to upset them unnecessarily, either. The word moderation permeates Warner's explanations of his explanations of his explanations, and the more it goes on the more you have to conclude that there is only one significant difference between John Warner and William Scott.

Warner married well.