"There isn't $5 in this whole room," said Art Buchwald, sizing up the crowd at Germaine's in Georgetown, "but if there is, I'm going to get it out of you."
True to his word, before Buchwald was through yesterday he had conned almost $10,000 out of more than 100 media heavies who had already paid $100 each to attend the James S. Brady Presidential Foundation benefit brunch with White House Press Secretary Jim Brady and his wife, Sarah.
"If you scratch your nose, it's a bid," Buchwald warned, establishing the ground rules for an auction that put up for grabs everything from lunch with a Washington Redskin to an elephant ride by the White House communications director. "If you wink to a friend, it's a bid. Those who voted for Reagan have to pay twice as much."
Buchwald's bite proved to be as wry as his bark.
"Here's an elephant ride from Union Station to the arena on March 29 at 10:30 a.m. Does anybody want that?" he asked.
ABC's Sander Vanocur, bidding $200, said he'd buy it for White House Communications Director David Gergen, whose surprise was registered by various shades of pink.
"Now we've got some serious bidding. We are now bidding on Gergen riding the elephants. I want $500 for that," Buchwald pressed.
"As long as you leave it out of your column," said CBS's White House correspondent Bill Plante, who was on the benefit committee with restaurant owners Germaine and Dick Swanson and photographers Michael Evans and David Hume Kennerly.
"It won't be in my column, but it could be on the cover of People Magazine. It's a helluva camera shot for somebody," said Buchwald. "Does ABC want it for 'Nightline'?"
ABC didn't have to take it, because former White House aide Joe Canzieri, raising the ante $50 to outbid Vanocur, came to Gergen's rescue.
"I asked if my kids could ride it if I couldn't," Gergen admitted later.
In another bit of good fortune, Gergen won a framed TV Guide cover photo of Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes and ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson, who were not at yesterday's benefit. It was one of several door prizes given away, and the first ticket drawn went unclaimed. "There is something about this town when you can't even give away that picture," observed Buchwald. On the second try, Gergen won.
"Fix, fix, fix," chanted the crowd.
"Gergen's trying to give it to Canzieri," someone shouted.
Another TV Guide photo, an autographed one of President Reagan, ran into similar problems. "Can we trade it for something else?" called out the winner.
There were vintage wines, an autographed football, an autographed hockey stick, a lunch with Washington Redskin Mark Murphy and the private Sky Suite at Capital Centre of owner Abe Pollin for one night. Wall Street Journal correspondent Al Hunt bought the suite for $350.
"When Billy Graham comes 18 people can go see him," said Buchwald.
Said Jody Powell, watching from the sidelines: "I'm afraid I might get a Frank Sinatra concert, given the tenor of the times."
Powell, who was Jimmy Carter's White House press secretary, opted instead for 10 seats at the circus, complete with a cream pie for the face of his choice.
"Give it to Donaldson," urged Jim Brady.
"You could promise your guests that the face would be yours," suggested free-lance television producer Claire Crawford.
"It's the most difficult decision I've made in 10 years," said Powell, who bid $110 for the outing. "I'm trying to decide how to get William Safire, Jack Anderson and Mary McGrory there all at the same time."
Direct-mail wizard Richard Viguerie's $1,500 bid was the high one of the day, buying him a signed Yousef Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill. Former national security adviser Richard Allen paid $1,000 for another kind of portrait, one of himself, his wife, Pat, and their seven children to be taken by Kennerly and Evans. "Is this for one person or a family?" Buchwald asked.
"Unlimited," said Kennerly magnanimously.
"There wasn't any way I could lose," said Allen, who was already planning either a U.S. Capitol or White House background.
"Now, a ridiculous item is coming up," said Buchwald, "a mention in my column."
"Twenty-five cents," someone bid.
"I already have a bid of $400 from Dick Allen for not mentioning his name," replied Buchwald, explaining that he would mention anyone in his column in a fictitious manner. "You can tell me in advance if you want him to be mentioned in regard to some kind of screw-up in the IRS or you want him mentioned nicely. I can go either way."
"I'm not going to embarrass myself," said Buchwald dropping to his knees. "I'm not going to beg."
John Linehan of New York, a Kennerly friend, bought it for $375.
"Thank you, sir, thank you, sir," said Buchwald.
Brunch was a feast of Southeast Asian dishes such as glazed chicken, fish with black bean and ginger sauce, beef with orange suace, four kinds of sate', seafood salad, spring rolls and Indonesian rice truffle. The crowd was what NBC correspondent Bernard Kalb described as "all part of the Saigon Mafia" and some, like him, among the restaurant's original investors.
"I'm not doing flackery, believe me," he said. "If I ever get back what I invested, which was a modest sum and an act of faith in Germaine, the rate of return by the year 2032 would be to get back my original investment."
In explaining the James S. Brady Presidential Foundation, James T. Lynn, foundation president, called it a "standby fund" that was set up to provide assistance to anyone wounded in an assassination attempt on any senior federal official, presidential candidate or on family members of the president and vice president, or to the family of someone killed in such an attempt. The session in which Congress passed the bill setting up the foundation probably made history, said Lynn.
Congress was going home and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver told congressional liaison Ken Duberstein to see that the bill was passed before the members left, Lynn said.
"It was introduced on the Senate side by Sen. Bill Roth R-Del. , for whom Jim Brady once worked, on the House side by Bob Michel R-Ill. , minority leader. Floor manager on the House side was Tom Foley Wash. , a Democrat, and in literally 2 1/2 to 3 hours, it had passed both sides of the Congress and was on its way to the president for his signature," said Lynn.
Brady, who was wounded in the March 1981 assassination attempt upon President Reagan, was the "inspiration" for the foundation, said Lynn. The initial goal was $2 million. Lynn declined to say how much has been raised so far.
"We're encouraged, but we're not there yet," said Lynn.