"Did you know that today is the birthday of the late president, er, the recent President Carter?" remarked the Chief Justice of the United States. Everybody nudged each other, exchanged knowing glances and, as you'd expect a roomful of Republicans to do over a slip of the tongue like that, everybody giggled.

"It's also Vera's birthday," Warren Burger continued, referring to his wife, who looked a little startled to be singled out when the guests of honor at last night's eight-course culinary adventure, estimated to cost at least $200 per person, actually were U.S. Chief of Protocol Lee Annenberg and her husband, former U.S. ambassador to Britain Walter Annenberg.

At that point, however, the Annenbergs didn't quite realize that the dinner for two dozen at the exclusive La Pavillion, hosted and paid for by South Carolina's Sen. Strom Thurmond, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and his wife Nancy, was a celebration marking the Annenbergs' 30th wedding anniversary.

The next thing, Burger was singing a solo the way he said a grandson serenaded him several years ago: " 'Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, you look like a monkey, you belong in a zoo.' Now that," said Burger, looking very much like Central Casting's version of a Supreme Court justice and not the least like a monkey, "is what you get from grandchildren."

It was that kind of party -- relaxed, intimate and very, very upper echelon when you noticed that among the guests were the majority leader of the Senate, Tennessee's Howard Baker, and the president's best friend in Congress, Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada; the No. 2 and No. 3 men in the State Department, Undersecretary Walter Stoessel and Deputy Secretary William Clark; Attorney General William French Smith; two key aides to President Reagan, Fred Fielding, his counsel, and Helene von Damm, his new deputy assistant for personnel; International Communication Agency Director Charles Wick; and New Jersey businesswoman Helen Boehm.

In his after-dinner toast, Thurmond marveled at how Walter Annenberg, 71, was able to "keep up" with his wife, 61.

"Nancy [35] has the same problem in keeping up with me," said Thurmond, 78, "and I wanted to give you a small gift which hopefully will help you in the next 30 years to keep pace with your active wife."

The package contained stress formula vitamins.