Americans do not have street-side caf,es. They have parties. The Europeans have caf,es, most notably the French and the Italians. There the citizenry goes to parade and to disport, to gabble and to take in the human extravaganza. One sits with amusing people, and no matter how prosaic one might be, usually someone is watching.

The politicos and the intelligentsia are spectacularly avid caf,e-goers, a datum that brings a snort from the politicos and the intelligentsia on this side of the Atlantic. We are duly dismayed when the Europeans give themselves over so easily to derision of American ways, but ask an American politician or scholar what he really thinks of a French eminence cruising around Paris' Brasserie Lipp. The response will not be respectful.

Yet do not be deceived: We Americans are not completely free of the caf,e spirit. Rather than disport alfresco, we go indoors and have parties, often mammoth parties. In Washington right now the parties are being waged with colossal gusto. The triumphant Republicans are partying in celebration of their divinely ordained triumph over the Party of Gloom. Even the Party of Gloom is partying. And the Progressive Club is having "The Alternative Inaugural Ball" at the Kilimanjaro restaurant. Admission is $5, though I have not been invited. That hurts, for I have always thought myself very progressive, and George McGovern will be there. What is so progressive about him? If there were a Smithsonian Museum for pass,e ideas, his would be on display, though the display would be deserted.

Of all the party-givers this season, the editors of the intellectual reviews are perhaps the most energetic. Last month The New Republic had a party. Last week Human Events had one. Late in the month Commentary is having one, and even I, as editor of The American Spectator, have been hornswoggled into sending out invitations. Washingtonians are beginning to wonder, why all the parties?

I say it is because the caf,e spirit is fundamental to Western man. The networks of caf,es that enliven the streets of European cities are not feasible in our harsh climes where the winters can be arctic and the summers equatorial. Thus we go indoors. But there is more to it than that. Americans, especially those of distinction, continue to have a Puritanical side to them, and so they are, perforce, devious. When spending money on frivolity, they feel guilty; thus they delude themselves into believing that the expenditure is for some highfalutin purpose.

In Washington we say that these soirees are essential to solemnize the solemn. They bring people together, as corrals bring livestock together. They are good for business and for the flow of ideas. All this is true, but are these convincing reasons for having a party?

Truth be known, we have parties because they are amusing, and for those who are stuck over at the Progressive Club's gruesome affair, remember George Jean Nathan's declaration: "I drink to make my friends amusing." You can too, though it might take insalubrious quantities.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that politicians and intellectuals are loathe to reveal that they have parties mainly for the fun of it. For years both specimens of Americano have been very secretive about the role sheer fun plays in their lives. According to most of them, their raison d'.etre is to advance the commonweal, truth and justice. My researches suggest an alternative conclusion -- namely, that they are almost always at play. A surprising number of intellectuals and politicians have taken on their lofty endeavors solely because doing so gives them a tremendous kick.

This is one of the reasons I so admire our presery clear that he is having a ball. How refreshing it would have been in the last election if Walter Mondale, after delivering one of his dirges about the suffering and gloom he sees in the republic, had frankly concluded by excluding, "God, how I love this work." He does you know; and so I am inviting him to my party, where the cafe spirit will be ill- concealed.