"If this roast were served to me in a restaurant," said CBS' Andy Rooney, "I'd send it back."

And so went a promised "roast" of news czar Walter Cronkite at the Washington Hilton last night, a roast that wound up more of a tribute. Make fun of Uncle Walter before his retirement? Nobody could bear to.

Except for Frank Reynolds. "You old goat," said the ABC news anchor. "We at ABC believe you have earned your retirement. It's long overdue."

The occasion was the 36th annual dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association, a noisy affair full of pomp, preening and potshots.

For instance:

"I got a shoe shine before I came here tonight," said Rooney. "And Dan Rather's secretary was sitting there -- having here boots licked."

"Mrs. Small is ill," said CBS News chief Bill Leonard, explaining why he was the sole network news president to show up, "and Mr. Arledge never remembers where he's supposed to be at one time or another."

That's basically what happened in the television news stratosphere. Closer to earth, among the lower echelons, the dinner was clearly a chance to be seen -- hopefully by some news mogul or other.

"That's the popular wisdom," said one local Washington television reporter.

"You know, come and have a drink with them and hope they will remember you."

Among the 1,000 guests was ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson. He was standing there near the front of the room when the United States Marine Band struck up something triumphant. All the available glitterati from the head table came marching in. "Oh my god," said Donaldson, "strew the garlands. What a silly-looking bunch of people." He waved to Cronkite as he passed by. "And think what I'll be like when I get a drink in me," Donaldson surmised.

Videotape roasters included former president Gerald Ford, former secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In keeping with the tone of the evening, nobody roasted much.

"Accept my love," said Sadat. "Let me hope that you will come to visit with me."

Finally, Cronkite got up after nearly two hours of listening to everybody else talk. "It's not often that a person gets to address a gathering such as this," he said, "and with such distinguished people, who have to go the bathroom as much as I do."[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] hasn't been a total loss. Now we all know that Frank Reynolds has a sense of humor."