Call it the meanie roast.
In a town where a well-done roast can raise a small fortune, the Democratic Study Group last night served up "The Three Toughest Chairmen in the House" -- "Jackknife Jack" Brooks of the Government Operations Committee, "Jugular John" Dingell of Energy and Commerce and "Dangerous Dan" Rostenkowski of Ways and Means, as they were billed in the program.
More than 500 people showed up at the Capital Hilton see the mudslinging. "Selling tickets for this was not tough," said Rep. Dennis Eckart (D-Ohio), dinner chairman. "This is a night of last revenge."
Mark Russell warmed up the crowd.
"Tonight we honor Dingell, Brooks and Rostenkowski," he said. "Sounds like a law firm undergoing a severe identity crisis."
Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.), introduced by Russell as the "C-Span matinee idol to literally dozens of people," took his shots next and attempted to answer the question, "How tough are they?"
"These guys aren't junkyard dogs," he said. "They're not mean, they're just decisive. They're so decisive they make Rambo look like Bambi . . . They make the Dirty Dozen look like hard-boiled eggs -- no, soft-boiled eggs . . . You know, Clint Eastwood should have been here tonight to roast these guys. After all, they're the ones -- the good, the bad and the ugly. They wouldn't tell me which was which."
Wright called the towering Dingell "the Refrigerator" of his committee, a reference to William Perry of the Chicago Bears. Rostenkowski he dubbed "the Mr. T of national politics," and of Brooks he smiled and said, "Sweet Old Brooks, or sometimes they shorten it to the initials."
Later Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) took the skewer. "The hard thing," he mused, "is to say rude things about them and have anyone think you're kidding."
Dingell (D-Mich.) and Brooks (D-Tex.) were all innocence.
"I think the whole thing is a big mistake," said Dingell. "I'm just a nice guy."
"I'm really amazed," said Brooks. "I'm just a rose between two Polish thorns." And just before he left, he aimed a needle at the crowd: "I hope you're having a good time at our expense, at your expense."
Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), tongue in cheek, told the crowd, "I think truly that this is a fun event. I'll never be back here again."
Figures were not available on the crowd's expense. Richard Conlon, DSG executive director, said he expected the evening to raise several hundred thousand dollars, to be used to help Democrats in close congressional races. Tickets went for $500, but staffers got in for $50 if their representatives had paid full price.
It was a night of jabbing each other, but mention of President Reagan's remarks earlier in the day opposing economic sanctions against South Africa showed that even at a roast, the party line is clearly drawn.
"His views are in variance with most members of the House, most members of the Senate and I suspect in wide variance with the majority of the public, too," Dingell said.
But Brooks, despite his designation for toughness, preferred not to roast the president. "We're not going to talk about Reagan tonight or people really won't think I'm nice," he said, grinning slyly.
Perhaps the only real surprise was that there were those who put all kidding aside for a moment.
"They don't come any tougher," said Rep. Tom Foley (D-Wash.), adding, "They are enormously effective."
*Said Eckart, "If you want a bill to move or if you want to kill a bill, you have tonight three of the best practitioners in the House."