"The ACLU made a mistake," said Joe Rauh, deadpan. "They should have given Ed Meese the award, because he's the best fund-raiser they've had in years."

The liberals had a field day last night: While American Civil Liberties Union associates and friends gathered at the Capital Hilton to honor political cartoonist Herbert L. Block and civil rights attorney Warren Kaplan at its annual awards dinner and fund-raiser, Rauh, head of Americans for Democratic Action, couldn't resist the opportunity to chide the current administration.

With a drink clasped firmly in his hand and the trademark bow tie at his neck, Rauh called The Washington Post's Herblock, who received the Henry W. Edgerton Award last night for his "creative and incisive defense of the Bill of Rights," a "one-man gang of civil liberties activists." But Rauh said, "Meese, with his absurd attack -- calling the ACLU a front for criminals and all that rubbish -- has done more than you can imagine" for the organization's unity and motivation.

Rauh wasn't the only one who roasted and toasted the Reagan administration. After the meal, as the single candles that served as the tables' spartan centerpieces had burned almost down to their bases, one speaker after another took a scrappy swipe at the Republicans and the New Right.

"We'd like to extend our thanks to Ed Meese and Jerry Falwell," said ACLU president James Fitzpatrick, as he greeted the crowd of more than 500, "for the most successful dinner we've ever had."

Political cartoonist Jules Feiffer, one of Block's disciples, said of his mentor: "For the last 40 years he's amused us . . . pleased us . . . taught us . . . and offended THEM." Later, Feiffer said of Block, "His Joe McCarthy was the way everybody came to see Joe McCarthy, including Joe McCarthy . . . the images he creates become more real" than the men themselves.

Kaplan, who received the Alan Barth Service award, was honored for, among other things, his participation in the defense of scores of demonstrators who were arrested on the steps of the Capitol during the May Day antiwar protests in 1971. There is still unfinished business in the May Day cases, Kaplan said, though the $2.5 million awarded to those apprehended is the single largest damages award in the ACLU's history.

Among those who came to honor Block and Kaplan was Florence B. Isbell, former secretary to ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, who remembered Baldwin as "one hell of a militant pacifist"; Mary Dent Crisp, on the Population Action Council's governing committee; former ACLU legal director Ralph Temple, who called the bastion of liberalism "more vital than ever"; Mayor Marion Barry and City Councilman David Clarke; John W. Leslie, former director of information, publications and reports in the Labor Department; and reporter Daniel Schorr, who received the Edgerton Award in 1976.