"Twenty dollars," said a gray tweed near the door.
"Twenty-five dollars," piped up a faint voice in the back.
"Do I hear $35?" said the auctioneer. "Come on, all you well-heeled liberals. Somebody's gotta have $35."
And so the bidding opened last night for a trademark bow tie well-worn by Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D-Tex.), the gentleman from Houston who faces what he and his liberal cohorts call a "fearsome" reelection fight as well as $600,000 of the opponent's cash.
"Jesus Christ," said Texan and drinking buddy Larry L. King, ever ready with some back-home hyperbole, "they've got enough money to light a wet mule."
Hard to figure in these parts. But they -- being the forces of conservative Republican Jack Fields, backed by Big Oil, the New Right and former Texas governor John Connally -- may just have enough to beat Eckhardt in the Houston district he's represented for 14 years.
Last night, at a $15-a-head fund-raiser and auction (the only item on the block other than the bow tie was a wood carving by the representative) at philanthropist Stewart Mott's house on Capitol Hill, Eckhardt was after some of his own cash from some of his own kind: the "little people," i.e., the young congressional staffers who've turned into fans.
There was a smattering of not-so-little people among the several hundred, too. A few lawyers from Connally's Washington firm, for instance. "It's a big firm," said one named Gary Ewell. "There are a number of divergent interests and personalities." Then there was Terry O'Rourke, Alfred Kahn's counsel, and Michael Pertschuk, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.
Here's what Pertschuk said about Eckhardt:
"He's been a beacon of rationality for people who believe that Congress can be more than it is. I mean, well, once I went up to see him about an issue and I raised a question and then became quite uncomfortable because he wasn't saying anything. Then I realized he was thinking before he answered. He's thoughtful and deep and skeptical and decent. And it's not bull----."
Here's what Eckhardt said;
"We're running into a new Know Nothing era like that of the 1850s. I mean, the issues and the campaign were totally demagogic. I think that's exacerbated by three things today -- the high cost of campaigns, the business of PACs and the highly sophisticated, automated, electronic type of campaigning . . . I've got $175,000, but I'll probably need $200,000. And I don't even know if that's enough."
But back to the bow-tie auction.
"Do I hear $35?" said the auctioneer, who was actually Bob Cochran, free-lance writer and "ancient friend" of Eckhardt's. "Thirty-five?"
Utter stillness. Your grandmother would have said the cat had everyone's tongue.
"This low bidding embarrasses me to the point where I'm going outside to get me a beer," said Eckhardt, who wore another bow tie and a gold watch in his vest. He moseyed out toward the keg.
"Forty dollars," said somebody who probably makes scads of money as a lawyer.
"Fifty dollars," said Larry King.
"But you're a rich playwright," said the auctioneer, who was right. "Do I hear $75?"
More stillness. Eckhardt returned with his beer, sipping and surveying the crowd that appeared to be stricken by laryngitis.
"Is that a raised finger?" said a hopeful Eckhardt staffer.
"No, no, no," said the man of the finger. "I just want to tell you that you're almost out of beer out here."
Silence, again. Very grim.
"$100," said King, at last. "Will you take a check?"