Columnist Art Buchwald said it best: "We have done our mea culpas," announced to a mob of America's editors last night, "and now it's time to sing the Hallelujah Chorus."

Hallelujah. It was over.

For four long days and nights, more than 1,000 newspaper editors had come to Washington to caucus, gossip, eat, drink, dance and agonize about the written word. But finally, the American Society of Newspaper Editors finished off their annual convention with a black-tie banquet in the cavernous ballroom of the Sheraton-Washington. Buchwald provided the comic relief. There was need for it.

Some of his selections included:

"For every congressman or senator who messes around in this town, there are at least two who couldn't -- even if they wanted to."

"Mrs. [Paula] Parkinson took her work very seriously, particularly with Republicans. No one knows how many Republicans she lobbied -- but we do know it was a moral majority."

A favorite topic for Buchwald was the same one that the editors had kicked around and fretted about all week: former Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke and the Pulitzer hoax.

"It could have been worse, Ben," Buchwald said from the podium to Washington Post executive editor Benjamin Bradlee. "You could have been listed by Governor Carey's wife -- as one of her dead husbands." This drew excessive laughter.

"Speaking of the Pultizer Prize," Buchwald continued, warming up, "I don't want to blow my own horn, but I was also nominated for a Pultizer Prize this year. But I was one of the lucky ones. I lost."

Bradlee, in introducing Buchwald, remarked: "Now that our new policy about lying is firmly in place, introducing him is next to impossible."

The dinner began with the usual cocktail hour. Lots of Scotch. Lots of black ties. Lots of laughter, guffaws, jokes. Everybody had been serious for long enough.

One rare bird amidst all these editors was Irving ("Swifty") Lazar, literary super agent. Somebody asked him about former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the man who spoke at the ASNE convention banquet last year. Lazar is handling Brzezinski's book.

"I just spoke to him," Lazar said.

"Booooooo," said one editor.

"I'm not his keeper," Lazar replied pleasantly, "just his agent."

As for the editors carrying on around him, Lazar had this to say: "Look, they don't look like a convention of plumbers. They have an intelligent look. But they don't look rich. Yes, I would know."

Meanwhile, the drinking continued. Just hours earlier, the editors had heard a speech by Secretary of State Alexander Haig -- a particularly timely speech, as it turned out, because of the lifting of the Russian grain embargo. Ronald Reagan did that yesterday, but Haig was against it Thursday night. Yesterday he told the editors that "it is my policy to fully support the presidency."

The editors had plenty to say afterward. "I thought the text of his speech was a reasonably calm exposition of the Haig position," said Thomas Winship of The Boston Globe, "but I thought that he didn't quite succeed in camouflaging his combative instincts."

Pretty soon, everyone wandered into the ballroom for dinner and the annual ASNE writing awards. Receiving them were Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post for sports writing; Paul Greenberg of The Pine Bluff, Ark., Commercial for commentary; Saul Pett of the Associated Press for nondeadline writing; and for deadline writing, Tom Plate of The Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Richard Zahler of The Seattle Times.