The people at last night's dinner for William Bradford Reynolds were clearly in a fighting mood. Even the invocation had teeth in it.

"Let the wicked be cut off our government and let the treacherous be rooted out of it," intoned the Rev. Saint George I.B. Crosse, a native of Grenada who seemed cross indeed.

Later the crowd of 600 at the Hyatt Regency -- gathered to honor the embattled head of the Justice Department's civil rights division and give him the fourth annual Winston Churchill Award -- thrilled to variations on the theme of combat.

"When anyone attacks Brad Reynolds, they're attacking us," said Burton Pines of the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research, which sponsored the occasion and presented the award. "They're going to have us to contend with -- and I suspect they'll hear that as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania."

The reference was to Sens. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who led the successful and bitter fight last summer in the Senate Judiciary Committee against Reynolds' confirmation as Justice's number three man. It goes without saying that neither senator was in evidence last night.

"Shameful actions and sad events," Justice's number one, Attorney General Edwin Meese, called those Senate proceedings.

"Hypocrisy," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a Judiciary member who told of a certain unnamed Democrat who "in strict confidence came to me and said, 'Brad Reynolds is really a remarkable and wonderful man' . . . and then he voted against him."

Roy Innis, chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality and one of a handful of blacks, took a swipe at what he called the "lying media." "Calumny and abuse," said Charles J. Cooper, Reynolds' deputy-designate. "He is a sensitive and friendly man who was cruelly defamed, excoriated and ridiculed."

After a daisful of such righteous indignation, Reynolds modestly replied. "I regard as badges of honor the battle scars . . . and I wear them proudly," he said.

At the predinner reception, Reynolds was less forthcoming. Asked how he felt on his night of glory, he said, "I feel right now like not giving any interviews, that's for sure. I'm here to talk to my friends."

He also declined to give his reaction to remarks made earlier yesterday by television actress Betty Thomas, who said among other things that "Brad Reynolds and Ed Meese . . . are the comedy cousins to 'Misfits of Science.' Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you 'The Misfits of Justice.' "

"I haven't had a chance to read it or focus on it," the assistant attorney general said.

Meese, for his part, glanced over the text of Thomas' speech, made to the National Commission on Working Women, and demanded, "So?" Even the evening's lighter moments had a bit of an edge.

Here is Madeleine (wife of columnist George) Will, an assistant secretary of education, recalling Reynolds' apparently checkered childhood: "As a Cub Scout he blew up his Cub Scout leader's outhouse. His interest in incendiaries continued into adolescence, when he threw a bomb into a librarian's car in high school. So when his critics call him a 'bomb thrower,' they are more accurate than they know."

This was greeted by nervous giggles.

Pines announced that proceeds from the $50-a-plate dinner are to be donated to a scholarship fund for the children of the late Army major Arthur Nicholson, who was shot to death March 24 by Soviet soldiers in East Germany. But conservative fundraiser Richard Viguerie spoke of another purpose.

"The conservatives for years and years were accused of not recovering their wounded," he said. "Brad is not wounded, but we need to let our own people know that we love him and appreciate him."