History was served in three courses -- comedy, family drama and political intrigue -- at The Washington Post Book and Author Luncheon yesterday at the Washington Hilton.

Bob Woodward, author of "Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA," the controversial account of the era of the agency's late director William Casey, sympathetically portrayed the man he interviewed dozens of times. But Woodward, assistant managing editor for investigations at The Washington Post, also repainted the dark portrait of a frustrated director who operated outside of his agency's jurisdiction to arrange an Arab terrorist's assassination and to sell arms in exchange for hostages.

"The tough job of the CIA is to predict the future of the world, which we know can't be done," Woodward said. "The book shows not that intelligence agencies deal with smoke and mirrors, but that they live and make assessments in a world of absolute contradictions. Casey put a credo out within the CIA: 'We must have a propensity for action.' "

If the nearly 2,100 in the audience came hoping to hear more about the book's much-discussed climax, in which Casey tells Woodward from his hospital bed that he approved the diversion of Iranian arms sale funds to the Nicaraguan contras because he "believed," they left disappointed. Woodward's joking cinematic reference to the incident -- "I got a telegram from Mrs. Casey ... It begins, 'I think you should know I Believed was the name of a toy sled my late husband had as a child. It was accidentally destroyed in a fire when he moved from Queens to Long Island ... ' " -- elicited laughter from some, puzzlement from others.

Doris Kearns Goodwin had to overcome not government secrecy and careful cover-ups, but failed memories and well-intentioned revisionists while she exhaustively researched "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys," her follow-up to "Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream." As a signer for the deaf struggled to interpret her rapid-fire delivery of anecdotes, Goodwin gave a warm account of her meetings with Rose Kennedy, including the conversation in which Kennedy discussed Gloria Swanson but never admitted knowing of her husband's affair with the actress.

Goodwin spurred the memory of the Kennedy matriarch -- now 97 -- with "a biographer's treasure" of previously unexamined letters, diaries, memos and photos that were stored at the family home in Hyannis Port. The book spans three generations, from John Francis Kennedy's baptism in 1863 to John Fitzgerald Kennedy's presidential inauguration in 1961, and recounts the family's rise from poverty and obscurity to wealth and power.

"I was delighted to find among the boxes of brittle documents the family Bible used to swear in John Kennedy," Goodwin said. "The names of all the generations were recorded and they all shared symbolically in the inauguration of the first Catholic president of the United States."

History of quite a different sort is Art Buchwald's forte, and he was in fine form as the final speaker introduced by Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee. Buchwald regaled the audience with stories old and new. "I Think I Don't Remember" is the latest collection of his columns, a romp through the last two years of the White House and beyond.

"I'm proud of telling people how to get past secretaries," he said. " 'May I inquire what you're calling about?' they ask. I say, 'Tell Mr. Goldman we just got his test back from the lab.' And if that one fails, this one never has: 'Tell Mr. Goldman we just found his American Express card on a water bed at the Silk Pussycat Motel.' "