The way columnist Mark Shields put it, the famous televised word-slinging between the anchor and the vice president Monday night boiled down to this: "Dan Rather accused George Bush of knowing what was going on in the administration. And Bush resented it."

Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) took up the theme and said that ABC's Sam Donaldson calling Rather arrogant "was like Ronald Reagan calling {former national security adviser John} Poindexter forgetful."

The 44th annual "Salute to Congress" -- a double-barrel volley of one-liners -- was fired off last night as the legislators tried to make the press laugh. On purpose. The dinner at the Sheraton Washington, an event that has outlived its sponsors, was traditionally given by the Washington Press Club (whose maiden name was the Women's National Press Club). Since the WPC merged with the National Press Club three years ago, the benefit was taken up by the Washington Press Club Foundation, which finances minority journalism scholarships and an oral history of women journalists.

About 900 journalists, friends of journalists, and political figures attended the affair, with news organizations vying to have headliners at their tables. Gannett may have won with Fawn Hall.

At the head table, WPCF president Ellen F. Toomey and cochairs Mary Lou Beatty and David Hess shared pear/raspberry/chocolate-covered extravaganzas (on which elephant and donkey cookies pranced) with House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-Ill.).

Mitchell, the first speaker after emcee Shields, said that President Reagan in his State of the Union address bragged that "he thought the past seven years were so good, he hoped the next would be as great. The next day 100 lawyers applied for jobs as special prosecutors. The position has replaced being a federal judge as the number-one career objective of persons entering law school."

Shields asked Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) to take two minutes to talk about presidential candidate and fellow Kansan Robert Dole's "warm personality." Kassebaum said she was happy to take two seconds to do so. And then she kept silent for two seconds.

Shields went on to say that "the Democrats need to know only three things to win the election -- but unfortunately no one knows what they are."

So he asked Rep. William Gray (D-Pa.), an ordained minister, to explain how effective Pat Robertson would be as president. Gray said he himself is "the deacon of the deficit" but said that Robertson's greatest miracle is to "transform himself into a businessman in his biography for the immoral majority."

And he said he'd had "a vision of Robertson's secret deficit reduction plan -- he'll solve the budget crisis by saying, 'Call this 700 number.' " Gray added that Oral Roberts "would go on television and say, 'Send in your taxes or the Lord will call you home.' " As for foreign policy, "Robertson can't understand why the Israelis and the Palestinians can't love each other like good Christians."

Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.) had her own George Bush joke. "In 1984 I prepped George Bush -- which may be redundant -- for his debate with Geraldine Ferraro. And now I am allowed to comment on what went on in the private session: The bastard didn't lay a glove on me."

Going on to consider sex and politics as bedfellows, Martin said people had been accused of sleeping their way to the top, but "Reagan napped his way."

On the contra aid, coming up to a vote in the House on Wednesday, Martin said, "Who says we don't compromise? The administration first wanted $270 million; we dropped it to $36 million in a fire sale." At the vote next week, she predicted, they might "throw in peace in Haiti and a drug-free Colombia."

Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) eschewed current political jokes for old back-home jokes, including the one about the convict who turned to his cell mate and said, "The food was better when you were governor."

As people came in the ballroom last night, they were given straws to vote for the presidential candidate they predicted would win. The results: Bush was the winner with 109 votes; Dole was runner-up with 84, followed by Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis with 73. Former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt and Sen. Paul Simon tied with 39. Pat Robertson and Alexander Haig tied for the bottom with two each.

Shields described the vote as what you'd expect of "an inside the Beltway liberal crowd" who hadn't seen the "inside of a bowling alley since V-J Day."

Sarah Peasley contributed to this story.