"This is Superbowl II, known as that non-Arabic, non-filmed, non-FBI-affiliated fund-raiser for Democratic congressmen."
With that, comedian Cactus Pryor, Texas' answer to Washington's Mark Russell, was off and bucking last night at the $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser Common Cause has called "the superbowl of Washington fund-raiser."
The Jim Wright Majority Congress Committee is how it's listed by the Federal Election Commission. And as its namesake, House Majority Leader Jim Wright of Texas, put it to more than 400 cronies, labor leaders, corporate representatives and friends at Loew's L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, it was "a touching occasion -- more touching for all of you."
Wright puts the bite on everybody at about this time each campaign year so that he can distribute the take to Democratic colleagues running for election or reelection to the House. Two years ago, according to last night's dinner chairman, Robert Groom, he raised $315,000 and gave it out to 223 Democratic candidates. He follows in that fine old tradition, aides say of his predecessors, including the tradition's originator, the late Hale Boggs of Louisiana.
"Hale would be proud to claim it," said his widow Lindy, herself a member of Congress representing his old district.
"Jim Wright pulls a lot of money in that nobody else could. He's got such a wide range of contacts all over the United States," said Frank Moore, President Carter's congressional liaison.
Wright pulled in a hefty representation of the Texas Mafia for sure, including Democratic National Committee chairman John White, Carter-Mondale campaign chairman Robert Strauss, presidential assistant Sarah Weddington and Reps. Jack Brooks, Ray Roberts, Marvin Leath and LBJ's favorite funnyman Cactus Pryor.
Pryor got off the best, if not the only, funny lines last night about a well-known scam on Capital Hill.
"I gotta admit," Pryor began his after-dinner monologue, "that I'm about as nervous as a congressman shooting craps with an Arab businessman in Atlantic City.Or Hamilton Jordan testifying before the ethics committee with a case of hay fever."
But the FBI sting operation, ABS-CAM -- and the congressmen implicated by it -- clearly was no laughing matter during cocktails before dinner. Of immediate interest was the effect it would have on the Democrats' reelection campaigns this year.
"It isn't going to help any of us," said the majority leader, standing with his wife Betty at the entrance to the predinner reception. "It's a very saddening experience for all of us in Congress -- even Republican members are saddened."
Bob Strauss said he didn't think it would have any effect on Democratic candidates this year. "Everybody is concerned about the danger to the process [of government] itself," he said.
Back from Texas was John White with the observation that there is a great deal more reaction here than there.
"I would hope the FBI would be eager to protect the innocent," White said. As for any political notivations behind leaks to the press, White said: "This is not a very good town for Secrets. I read about some of my own which I've never even told anyone."
Attorney Tom Quinn said he wouldn't be surprised to see a backlash develop against the FBI and the tactics it used.
Rep. Jack Brooks, wearing his Dallas Cowboys button, wryly noted that "Democrats are working in the public interest as ever" --and then more seriously said what bothered him was the tendency to try the case in the media.
Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt said the implication of attempted bribery was the kind of news Americans don't want to hear. "It confirms their worst suspicions, it's a black eye for the most important institution in our society."
"Even so," said Goldschmidt, who describes himself as "a bus driver for the federal government," he doubts it will have "any more effect than anything else" on the American public. "I'm probably more convinced than ever before that the people who represent us work very hard and conscientiously."
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill kept it all sweet and light as he moved through the crowd. Later, addressing them in the ballroom after a dinner that featured imported Texas barbecued beef and chili, O'Neill made some valiant attempts at political kneeslappers. But the laugh machine just wasn't registering. "I write my own stuff, Cactus," he more or less apologized, drawing one of his biggest laughs.
Jim Wright, seen by some as O'Neill's heir apparent, showed why he may hold the toughest job in Congress. Standing up at the rostrum and looking over the delightfully diverse crowd known as the "Democratic Majority in Congress," White riveted everybody's attention with a brave if rather off-key rendition of "The Eyes of Texas."
"The U.S. House of Representatives in the one body in the federal government closest to the American people, the one body nobody has ever served in except by election," Wright told his audience. "With all its flaws, it's the greatest repository of democratic principles, and for all its mistakes we're still more responsive to the American people than anything else."
His Democratic audience couldn't have agreed more.