"I sympathize with Jody" said former White House press secretary Ron Nessen yesterday as he stood onstage in front of a White House backdrop at the Shoreham Americana. "After all, I had a Ford to deal with, but he's got an Edsel."

"And", Nessen added when the guffaws had died down, "Jody is right, We don't have an accurate impression of Carter. But then, his luck can't hold out forever."

Yesterday 735 men - and grown men, at that - paid $25 a clip to hear Jody Powell call Ron Nessen "a jerk."

Powell, of course, was only joshing. It was he, after all, who had come to be publicly skewered in the name of sweet charity as the fall guy for the quarterly celebrity roast luncheon put on by the Circus Saints and SInners. Proceeds from yesterday's affair went to The Traveler's Aid Society.

I'm wondering how the hell I got into this," sidemouthed Powell as he was being led into the sold-out ballroom sporting a derby and dressed as a hobo.

Even Jimmy Carter got in a few punches at Powell in a letter gleefully read by Barney Breeskin, president of the National Circus Saints and Sinners. "I hope you jokers cut him (Jody) down the size," wrote Carter. "He's become entirely too big for his britches since the blew the whistle on Sen. Charles Percy and was such a comic hit at the White House press correspondents dinner."

'It's such a privilege," said Powell, "for a boy from the rural Deep South . . . who grew up used to poverty, deprivation and ignorance to be in a room like this surrounded by wealth, privilege . . . and ignorance," Powell told his audience before adding that, "Looking at this crowd it's a relief to see that the Redskins aren't the only over-the-hill group in town."

Needling Nessen as "the press secretary who gave arrogance a bad name," Powell then added that at least "We don't have an enemies list in this administration. As a matter of fact, Frank Moore and the other people over at Congressional Liaison are still trying to put together a friends list."

That got a big laugh from Moore, who at the lunch joined an impressive administration turn-out including Hamilton Jordan, Hugh Carter Jr., presidential assistant Tim Kraft, appointments secretary Phil Wise, Special Inflation Council Robert Strauss and Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger.

After a musical skit and some dancing it was time for Nessen. "I recall the time I once described the relationship between the press corps and the White House to Jody as a festering wound," said Nessen, "and Jody said, 'Well, it's not that good anymore'".

Potshotting at Carter's foreign policy, Nessen said the administration thinks "the West Bank is where Bert Lance goes for a loan," before adding that White House staff members seemed a little mixed up on Carter's admonition about living in sin. "Some members got married and stopped 'Living together,' while some got married and then stopped living together."

However, after Powell was presented with what Breeskin called "a peanut putter for Powell" (a peanut-engraved golf iron) - it was powell who got the last laugh on Nessend.

Pleading a serious note, Powell said he had been fascinated watching Nessen among the Saints and Sinners. "I've watched him here with you today," Powell told his audience. "The way he mingles so well . . . the way you seem to be the same kind of people . . . the way you communicate and fit together, and I wondered to myself. Why? And then it dawned on me: Ron, you're a jerk."