Knot after knot of black ties separated Ed Meese and Howard Metzenbaum at the Washington Press Club's salute to Congress last night, and that was probably just as well.

Just a few hours earlier, the attorney general-designate had been before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) had hardly been receptive. His colleague, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), hadn't been anywhere near receptive.

But Meese was everything a person under congressional consideration should be: modest, smiling and the tiniest bit feisty.

"It's hard to tell how it's going when you're sitting there answering questions," he said. "I'll leave that up to the senators. I think most of the senators have been very friendly and very cordial."

And what about Biden's comment that he thought Meese's behavior "beneath the office" of attorney general?

"Oh," he smiled, "that was strictly for television."

He then went into dinner, where the television cameras were waiting to capture senators being funny, not furious.

Ten people -- two members of the press, some legislators and a vice president -- told the jokes.

None of them were about Meese.

Popular subjects included: vigilante cum folk hero Bernhard Goetz; breaches in White House security; master of ceremonies Sam Donaldson; defense cuts; Sam Donaldson; Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV's wealth; Sam Donaldson; words that rhyme with "rich"; and the ever-popular Sam Donaldson.

"I didn't expect to get in at all," ABC's Donaldson told the crowd of 1,300 which included lots of media people, lots of Cabinet people and lots of Hill people. "I was walking in behind the Marine Band . . ."

He then scored humor bingo by hitting another hot topic before the laughter had died down. Security has been improved since a stray man wandered into the White House by following that band, he began.

"They've even replaced the head of the Secret Service," he said, "and I'm sure Mr. Goetz will do a good job."

The theme of the night was "The Wizard of Oz," which spawned a lot of emerald-green balloons and a menu including "Ding Dong the Croissant Is Bread" and "If I Only Had a Heart of Lettuce Salad."

It also spawned some interesting comparisons. The president is the Wizard, pulling strings, puffing smoke, flashing lights to "maintain an image of power," according to Press Club president Susan Garland. Rep. Jan Meyers (R-Kan.) identified budget director David Stockman as the Tin Man (no heart -- get it?).

Nobody bothered to identify the Wicked Witch. Instead the 99th Congress unveiled the jabs that will keep audiences at such roasts and salutes chuckling (or not) for the next two years.

"Jay's working very hard to avoid any conflict of interest," freshman Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said of Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), his fellow freshman senator. "He came to me this afternoon and said, 'How the hell do you put Venezuela into a blind trust?' "

Kerry did very well as he insisted "the notion in my campaign I was imitiating John Kennedy is ludicrous. I was imitating Gary Hart."

Other subjects didn't go over as well. A nasty crack at the Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale administration, for example, fell about as flat as the emerald balloons will be by tomorrow, which just goes to prove that party loyalty has a role, even in humor. You can make as many jokes as you want about Sen. Edward Kennedy's girth (and Kerry did), but for one reason or another some elements of your own party are out of bounds.

Or, as Sen. Mitchell McConnell (R-Ky.) said before dinner, "Some things are still sacrosanct. Us Republicans don't touch Reagan, for example."

No, they don't. They stick to Donaldson.

"The one thing is, he is a self-made man," said Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), "thus saving God from an awesome responsibility."

And when they get tired of Donaldson, they can always have fun with Bush.

"He has had an extraordinary relationship with all the dead leaders of the world," said Simpson as he introduced the vice president.

While Donaldson has become a kind of all-purpose scapegoat, Bush is like the uncle everyone laughs at because he's just so him. And, like the uncle, he's learned it's better to join in the laughter than sit there and wait for it to fade.

"As well as being fun, these occasions are enormously useful," Bush said of the funerals he attends so often. "You do get to meet first hand these leaders and form a close personal relationship. Many of these dead leaders have stayed in touch over the years. It's known as quiet diplomacy."