The name of Rep. Gary Franks (R-Conn.) was misspelled in Style Thursday. (Published 2/2/91)

Official Washington stepped gingerly back into its tradition of mixing business and pleasure at last night's Washington Press Club Foundation 47th annual Congressional Dinner at the Grand Hyatt Hotel.

The evening is traditionally a showcase for a few freshman members of Congress to prove wit and elected office are not mutually exclusive. The black-tie dinner is usually full of high jinks and low humor -- an informal night out for journalists and their sources on Capitol Hill. But this year's freshmen -- Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Gary Frank (R-Conn.) -- were uncharacteristically tame. In fact, no one was funny except Dave Barry.

"I think we all agree we're confronting an evil man in Saddam Hussein," the humor columnist told the audience of 900. "The best measure of just how evil he's perceived to be is this: When was the last time you heard anyone say the name 'John Sununu'?

"I suppose you think that's a cheap shot. In the interest of journalistic fairness, I would now level an equally cheap shot at a high-ranking, influential Democrat -- if there were any." Barry threw that one out as Speaker of the House Tom Foley sat doubled up a foot away.

For Foley and most of the audience, it was the first big night out since the war broke out two weeks ago. The guest list included Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, House Minority Leader Bob Michel, Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.), House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, and retired-general-turned-media-consultant Michael Dugan. People magazine provided the only glamour of the night with actress Morgan Fairchild and Divorcee-of-the-Year Ivana Trump at their table.

"I thought it was a wonderful evening for saluting Congress," said Trump, flashing teeth and diamonds. "I think the country and the Congress and the administration need every support they can get in these hard times."

In hard times, humor can be even more important, but it was in short supply last night. The four freshmen seemed noticeably uncomfortable. But perhaps taking their cue from former Redskin John Riggins (whose infamous advice to "Loosen up, Sandy baby" was delivered at this event in 1985), they tried.

Frank fared best by taking the Ronald Reagan tactic: good-natured self-deprecating humor. The only black Republican in Congress got appreciative laughs as he described wooing one voter: As he presented an airtight case why she should vote for him, the woman kept saying, "But Gary, you're a Republican."

"So I figured it was time to pull out the clincher," he said. "Mother, I am your son and I need your vote."

Norton, who described herself as "dean of the District of Columbia" delegation, threw out one successful jab: "In tribute to his long and dedicated years of service to the District of Columbia I am proposing, Mr. Speaker, a Stan Parris memorial pothole on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge."

Sanders and Wellstone were sincere. Not the least bit funny, but very sincere.

Some of the speakers privately expressed concern before the dinner that it might be inappropriate to fool around while the country is at war. Norton said she had a hard time coming up with anything to make jokes about.

"It's been very difficult to think of funny things to say when there is a war, a recession and a crippling budget deficit," she said. "But I remember what my parents told me about the Depression, when everybody went to the movies. I figure that this is what we ought to be doing tonight. But it's not easy."

"Saying life goes on somehow doesn't do it for me," said Wellstone, who had some doubts about making a funny speech at the dinner. "I'll just have to figure out something to say that will be sensitive, mean something to people and somehow explain why we are here."

Barry, who served as emcee, said he was given no restrictions although the organizers said that people weren't going to want to think too much about the war. "But I sort of knew that anyway."

But he still threw in a few one-liners about recession, war briefings, CNN and television correspondents, including Wolf Blitzer. "His real name is Thumper Dandelion. He changed it a year ago when he realized it was the only way to get off the CNN home furnishings beat."

The only problem he faced, in fact, came with one of the tongue-in-cheek questions Barry submitted in advance to the night's speakers. The questions were intended to give each speaker some funny material to work with.

"My question to Eleanor Holmes Norton was, 'How do you like Washington and do you plan to familiarize yourself with the local tax laws?' Her office said she was very sensitive about that so I shouldn't ask that question."

Oops. Bad emcee. Barry officially revised it to "As a newcomer to Congress, how do you like Washington so far?" Even that got a big laugh.