The White House State Dining Room could not have been more elegant. The guest list, a powerful roster that included President Clinton himself, could hardly have been more prestigious.

A decent party, agreed a mid-level White House aide as he sauntered up to the buffet table. And yet . . . not to quibble, but . . . Where are the shrimp?

Alas, as the aide noted disapprovingly, there were no shrimp at last week's send-off for departing Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman. Nor, for that matter, were there any lamb chops or meatballs. This party had power, but no protein.

And so Waldman's fete, grand as it was, placed in the high second tier among those who score the social sport that has become a preoccupation lately at the Clinton White House: the goodbye party.

It is starting to feel like spring term, senior year at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The accelerating number of partings has led to a glut of parties. A couple of weeks ago there were three farewell bashes in a single day.

The passing seasons of a presidential administration have brought the Clintonites to a curious stage. In the early days, ambitious aides jockeyed for work space closest to the Oval Office. In year seven, the competition now is for the most impressive party to bid their colleagues adieu.

Is the party in the White House residence, or in the Old Executive Office Building? Cheese and crackers, or heartier fare? And, most of all, do the Clintons themselves make an appearance?

Adding to the mystique of such questions is the fact that many White House aides themselves acknowledge they have only the dimmest understanding of how they get answered, or even by whom. "It's done by the Secret Committee that decides everything around here," one Clinton veteran said.

Senior White House officials say that decisions about parties don't get formally made so much as they just sort of happen.

The successful goodbye party, according to those who have helped throw them, is usually a culmination of subtle lobbying by the intended honoree and often not-so-subtle importuning by his friends. Among those useful to know are White House Social Secretary Capricia Marshall, presidential scheduler Stephanie Street and Clinton senior adviser Douglas B. Sosnik, who serves as the West Wing's minister-without-portfolio and is believed by many to be chairman of the Secret Committee. In many cases, Chief of Staff John D. Podesta might weigh in.

The reason goodbye parties are intriguing as an index of insider status is that there is no established protocol. A person could rank high on a White House job chart and leave his job without a trace. Or a person could rank relatively low on an official totem pole, such as former presidential personal assistants Andrew Friendly and Stephen Goodin, yet still come in for warm remarks from Clinton.

"This is an organic place," said one senior Clinton aide, commenting on the ritual of White House goodbye parties. "It's a combination of relationship and proximity to the president, length of service, and the wishes of the person. Those are the factors that get put into the sausage grinder."

But keeping track of such factors is becoming a more difficult task, as an administration that for the most part has been able to retain senior staff longer than its predecessors nears its final phase. "If any more people leave, we'll have to have a full-time staff to handle the departures," said domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed.

The other day, he went to goodbye parties for Janet Yellen, leaving her post as head of the Council of Economic Advisers, Jenny Luray, who handled women's issues, and Bob Boorstin, a former White House aide who had a goodbye bash upon leaving his job at the Treasury Department.

What some remember as the most flamboyant goodbye party was actually more than a year ago. Advance man Josh King organized for himself a production worthy of Cecil B. De Mille, complete with bagpipe players.

Over the past few months, there have been departure parties for White House counselor Paul Begala, who got a State Dining Room spread, as did former staff secretary Phil Caplan (who says his going-away party was like a "wedding reception, bar mitzvah and wake" rolled into one). Impeachment legal adviser Gregory Craig was toasted in the White House residence. Former White House special counsel Lanny Breuer had his party in the White House mess. Clinton aides said there was never a question but that former treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin, one of the towering figures of the administration, would have his party in the State Dining Room with as many caloric fixin's as anyone would care to consume.

Food, in fact, is one of obsessions of White House aides, who often arrive hungry at late-day parties. "If you have a meat product at your party, it's a sign you've made it," said one White House veteran. "If you've really, really made it, you have shrimp over at the mansion. Alcohol is also a sign that you've made it. If you have not made it, all you get is cheese and Cokes."

While this view is widespread among many White House aides, it is not strictly accurate. The departing White House aide or his friends pay for goodbye parties. Generally, they can order whatever food they like, so long as they are willing to reimburse. Waldman's party, for instance, featured cake, cookies and an array of tasty fruit tarts -- a middle ground option that kept costs from getting out of hand.

Large spreads, such as the lamb chops and spinach tarts at Begala's party, can run thousands of dollars. Several lower-level parties -- such as that this year of aide Ashley Raines (who had a cameo appearance in the news last year as a friend of Monica Lewinsky), who had her recent party in the OEB's Indian Treaty Room -- were catered by Burrito Brothers, aides said. Whiz-kid economic aide Jonathan Orszag had barbecue in the same room before leaving for the Commerce Department, under what friends said was a hail of ribald ribbing about his energetic social life.

Gags and jocular invective are common themes at White House goodbye parties, just as they are at offices everywhere. At Waldman's party, fellow speechwriter Jordan Tamagni recited a Top Ten list of famous Waldman lines (No. 1: "Just say it like we always say it. But, you know, different").

Reed and national economic adviser Gene Sperling are some of the administration's most numbing speakers whenever they come to the White House briefing room. But their public personas are apparently a disguise: Both are regularly called on for humor at goodbye parties. At Waldman's, they had the crowd chortling with a mock version of the game show "Jeopardy!" roasting Waldman's attire, his obsession with campaign finance, and the fact that national security advisers try to chase him away from working on speeches about foreign policy.

But the scorching humor had a poignant undercurrent. Clinton, while emphasizing that there is still plenty of work he intends to do, added to the valedictory air. He closed Waldman's party with emotional remarks about how much he owes the people who have served him. He gave Waldman, who moved to Little Rock in 1992 to work for him, a framed copy of a speech draft (scribbled full of Clinton's own revisions).

Then he gave his departing aide a tight embrace.