They asked Fawn Hall for autographs, reminisced about their youthful political prescience and even forgave George Bush for a conservatism many of them deemed insufficiently rigorous (at least to the point of applauding his speech). But the guests at last night's dinner in honor of The American Spectator's 20th anniversary showed again and again that their true hero was the bearded man sitting next to Attorney General Ed Meese. They clapped and cheered at every mention of Robert Bork's name, stood in his honor when given the chance and seemed on the verge of carrying him through the hotel lobby on their shoulders.

"Someone who had been specially designated by the fates to take something on for the rest of us," is how Midge Decter, executive director of the Committee for a Free World, described him. "He interposed himself between us and others who would like to wipe all of us off the earth ... How could he win? One man against a conscienceless mob that had changed the rules of the game he had come to even before he got a chance to play?

"Don't suppose, Bob Bork, that as long as we live, we will ever forget that. As for me, I don't intend ever to forgive, either."

Bork himself spent much of the evening thanking those who had come to his support during the recent battle over his nomination to the Supreme Court.

Any thoughts as another White house nominee heads into the same fight? "Put that away!" Bork said of a reporter's notebook, laughing. Translation: No comment.

But from Meese there was a comment. "We've had the usual misinformation from the news media," he said. "But I'm pleased to see that senators on both sides of the aisle are waiting to see the facts. I think this is a good thing for Judge Ginsburg." His advice to the nominee, he said, "is to maintain your sense of humor."

The crowd of more than 600 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel was thick with conservative/neoconservative/all-other- forms-of-conservative faithful. There were mass-mail innovator Richard Viguerie, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and Public Interest publisher Irving Kristol. And a past hero of the movement was recognized as well: The dinner program advised that a moment of silence for the late William Casey would follow the invocation.

For Bush, it was a perfect opportunity to court several hundred people who might otherwise have avoided him.

"Bob's been my friend," Bush said of Spectator Editor R. Emmett Tyrrell at a predinner reception, "and I respect him and I respect what he's done and his publication has a wonderful following of people who think."

People who think conservatively?

"Hey, wait a minute, I'm opposed to that label!" interrupted Tyrrell.

"Of course it's fundamentally and properly conservative," said Bush.

Much to the delight of the dinner organizers, who sent invitees a follow-up note informing them that if they paid the $150 for a ticket they would get to hear Bush, the candidate promised he would speak on foreign policy. But before launching into a talk on what he sees as excessive intrusions of Congress into foreign policy, he offered up some lighter comments.

He said this: "Today it's seven years to the day that we were elected -- that I was elected vice president. Frankly, it hasn't been easy. Every day I live with the reality that I'm only a heartbeat away from Sam Donaldson."

And this: "I've learned not to upstage your boss. I can't tell you how difficult it's been for me to keep my charisma in check for the past seven years."

Having finished his jokes, Bush turned serious.

"In my opinion, the most egregious example of the intrusion on the American president's foreign policy role was the War Powers Act," he said, to an audience that quite clearly agreed.

"It's no secret I support the Nicaraguan freedom fighters." Applause, applause. "And I am concerned about will happen when the Guatemalan accord goes into place this Saturday."

After Bush left, the rest of the crowd settled in for toasts and a slide show about the history of the magazine that was intended to be humorous but probably not as eccentric as a technical failure caused it to be.

And finally Tyrrell, the man who has called Sen. Edward Kennedy "an ass for life" and Jimmy Carter "the last yahoo," managed to get in a few jabs at liberals. "We're the only artifact of 1960s youth," he said, "that hasn't spent time at a detox center, a drug-abuse clinic, or taken a fleecing from an Eastern swami or any of the other trials that have beset that most celebrated of generations."

Special correspondent Sarah Peasley contributed to this report.