One of the biggest concerns at the fifth annual Ice Cream for America fete was not how to treat the second-degree burns that arose when sun-sizzled Hershey's chocolate syrup drizzled from dispenser to forearm, but how to explain Thomas Jefferson's personal hygiene.

Specifically, the sweet, dizzying scent he gave off.

"Okay," said Jefferson, actually New York actor Walt Willey dandied up as the 19th-century president who introduced the frozen goo to America under a social auspice, "It's Armani and baby powder. I'm wearing 25 pounds of brocade, I'm hot and ..."

He was fragrant. But the actor's distinctive odor wasn't the only thing in the air of the Russell Senate Office Building courtyard yesterday afternoon as members of Congress and their staffs milled and licked with the biggest dippers in the ice cream industry. The smell of summer was there.

Andso was the aroma of economics. Sponsored by the International Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers, the event was held in part, according to Linwood Tipton, executive vice president of the organization, to "jog the minds of Americans" about the wonders of the frozen dessert (one that 98 percent of Americans gobble, according to free-floating propaganda at the gathering).

But who really cared? It was fun. It was sunny. And it was free.

One woman in the thousand-plus throng enjoying the event perhaps more than any other was Gertrude Engel, Washington lobbyist and health activist infamous for splashing into a Ronald Reagan press conference in 1986 and accosting him with the news that she was "going to make your heart glow!" Dressed loudly in a bright yellow sheath, matching hat, lace stockings and rings galore, Engel pounced on a crowd of intrigued young men to announce that as soon as the Federal Jazz Commission warmed up, she was "going to wiggle, like I did last year." She then pronounced that she still had all of her own teeth.

While Engel mingled, touting the joys of appearance, Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) told anecdotes relating to the treat, the most notable one being the remark his 13-year-old stepson uttered recently. According to the teen, the annual ice cream party is "the only reason Congress exists."

"My children here grew up on this event, damn near," Wallop said. "And my staff feels seriously about this drawing they have, where they give a year's supply of ice cream away to the winning staff. I haven't ever won, so they've just about given up on me."

Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), dripping pralines ("I call it prawlines") and cream across a manicured lawn, was far more positive, stepping around questions about the Iran-contra hearings to pronounce that he was "a regular."

"I'd never walk away from ice cream," he said, licking a chunk of curdled cream, "even though I am trying to keep my weight down."

Others on and around the lawn might have had the same concern, but they didn't let it show. Some 50 flavors of ice cream were available, ranging from purist vanilla to some chocolate concoction called Bayou Goo. Dippers at the VIPDIP (Very Important People Dipping Ice Cream Proudly) were more than happy to extol the virtues of all types, brands and tastes.

The late afternoon of flavorful decadence came after an earlier attempt close by to build peace by exchanging just desserts with the Soviet Union. Larry's, an ice cream company out of Tampa, Fla., sponsored the ice cream exchange event at the Rayburn Building, which ended a parade of ice cream-related promotional events held in the name of love and prosperity.

The idea to exchange scoops with the Soviets came after owner Larry Kurian read a news story revolving around a visiting Soviet girl. The girl announced that people in her country liked ice cream probably as much as Americans. After The Read came The Idea.

Kurian decided, after little contemplation, to begin a campaign called "Building Peace -- One Scoop At a Time" to raise consciousness and encourage positive relations with the Soviets. The chief aid in Kurian's plan was Jennifer Hodgeman, a 14-year-old from Clearwater, Fla., who won an essay contest based on the theme "Why I believe ice cream can build peace."

"When you're eating ice cream, it really makes you happy," she explained yesterday, methodically and with conviction, "so if you can be together -- that is, Americans and Soviets, you can make each other happy."

All was happy as Larry, Jennifer and crew slurped up for peace. But as the Ice Cream for America party picked up steam, not everyone was serene.

"Look at her eat," said one lithe blond to another, pointing to a heavy woman slurping on a chocolate chip cone. "Yeah," said the second, "can you believe it?"