Sen. Ernest F. Hollings stood in the spotlight with the kind of unflinching smile that only a presidential candidate can muster, as cartoonist Pat Oliphant drew him with a pen dipped in vinegar.
The drawing took 20 seconds, turning the silver-crested Democratic senator from South Carolina, who looks like Hollywood presidential casting, into a ski slope of nose and jaw. The crowd, packed into the rust-colored hotel room lined with cartoons, cheered and applauded as cameras flashed.
It was the newest wrinkle in political fund raising, a cartoon party to raise money for Art Pac, the national political-action committee for the arts. On the walls hung 200 original cartoons by artists who had donated them for the cause. Present were some of the cartoonists themselves; around them milled the crowd of political biggies, reporters, and Washington glitterati - including Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island, who was lanced by cartoonist Dan Wasserman of the Los Angeles Times, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who decided not to be cartoon fodder.
''They're all superb, aren't they, huh?'' said Senator Hollings as he studied a wall of cartoons priced from $75 to $1,000 each. ''More red dots, we need more reds,'' Mr. Oliphant muttered, scanning the room for the tags that signified items sold. Paul Szep of the Boston Globe and Tony Auth of the Philadelphia Inquirer stood around, plotting a conspiracy.
''We're putting a book together: 10 favorite cartoons by 10 different cartoonists,'' said Mr. Auth, ticking off the names of some of the contributors who are tentatively scheduled to collaborate on the effort. And, he kidded, ''we're going to split the money from it to go to the movies together.''
Among the other cartoonists who have donated more than 200 original drawings to the benefit are Jules Feiffer, Bill Mauldin, Paul Conrad, Jeff MacNelly, Brian Bassett, Sack, Bill Shorr, Ben Sargent, M. G. Lord, Jim Moran, Mike Peters , Bill Day, and Jim Borgman.
Pat Oliphant, whose cartoon of former President Richard M. Nixon flashing the victory sign is the poster for the show, explains why he donated a dozen of his works. He says of cartoonists, ''We're a finite resource, like oil and gas. An artist's life endures only as long as the work he leaves behind him endures. . . . It's nice to see it go to museums of universities, which can set up representative bodies of work.''
Under present tax laws, such donations of artists' work have fallen off to a trickle, because the artist can deduct only the cost of materials like paper, ink, canvas, paint - not the market value of the art. Paradoxically, tax laws allow collectors of art to deduct the full value of the art, up to thousands of dollars in the case of some paintings. Art Pac not only lobbies for the arts, but raises funds for congressional candidates sympathetic to the arts.
Its 1,000 members include a national cross section of artists, cartoonists, composers, writers, and musicians, among them famous names like artists Jasper Johns, Marisol, and Roy Lichtenstein, writers Norman Mailer and Peter Benchley, actors Cliff Robertson and Ed Asner, and composer Elie Siegmeister.
Cartoonist Oliphant says he's made some last-minute changes in his donations to include his most recent, pungent stuff. Speaking in wry fashion of the United States invasion of Grenada, which had just occurred, he said, ''Last week was such fun. It was bad for the country, but fun for cartoonists.''
Once he finds the idea for the daily cartoon he does for Universal Press Syndicate, it takes him about two hours to do the finished drawing, usually with an all-news radio station blaring in the background.
Mr. Wasserman of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate says the cartoons that are most satisfying for him to draw are ''the ones where you have a gut reaction, where you pick up the newspaper and see what strikes you as an issue. . . . The invasion of Grenada struck me as an outrageous act. . . . You look for a subject where you feel on firm moral ground.''
Mr. Wasserman says his three cartoons a week for the syndicate give him a ''somewhat more relaxed'' schedule, but he admits he sometimes feels the steely dread of deadline.
''So, as soon as I find something I like, I try to get it drawn and get it out, so I won't reconsider it. If something works, I won't sit around and play with it for too long. There is a tendency when you can't come up with something (just right) to want to use more detail. But I try to find a couple of clear images'' and go with them, he says. Like Mr. Oliphant, Wasserman feels strongly that the present tax laws on donations to museums and libraries are unfair to artists. Both men support Art Pac.
But Miami Daily News cartoonist Don Wright, whose name was on the original Art Pac invitation, has since withdrawn his support.
''I have some ethical problems with it,'' Mr. Wright says. ''I'm a journalist , and I ought not to be involved in any way, shape, or form with a political-action committee seeking something special from Congress, something that would benefit me monetarily. I think it constitutes a conflict of interest.''
Like most other cartoonists, Wright devours a liberal helping of news each day, reading four major dailies and the Associated Press wire - ''anything I can get my hands on'' - as well as television news.
The result is, for a cartoonist, a measured response. ''I'm less inclined to take real quick positions,'' says the daily cartoonist. ''I'm extremely wary of taking a quick position on an issue like Grenada when I don't know all the details. There is a tendency to jump in with an opinion when you don't have all the background you need.''
But once he jumps, he doesn't do it gently. Don Wright would rather use the spike of satire than broad humor. ''I'd rather be a member of the vitriolic group,'' he says. ''Few cartoonists are good at just humor. . . . I'd rather not be too soft, marshmallowy, and sophomoric.'' Incisive is what he aims to be, says Wright.
Mr. Auth of the Philadelphia Inquirer says he, too, does a lot of background reading because, like many cartoonists, he considers himself a generalist.
''Because we're such generalists, every day is a final examination in our subjects,'' he explains.
Until the right idea for a cartoon strikes, Auth says, he can't listen to anything. He needs total silence for the thinking. Once the idea dawns and he's doing ''the actual exertion of drawings, the craft,'' he turns on his tapes.
''I tend to listen to 'Books on Tape' while I'm drawing,'' he explains - listening to a tape of Tolstoy's ''War and Peace,'' for example, while drawing foxholes in Lebanon. Among the other books-to-draw-by he has used: John le Carre's ''The Little Drummer Girl'' and Philip Knightly's ''The First Casualty, '' a history of war correspondents, as well as ''Sherlock Holmes'' and an occasional National Public Radio tape, such as ''A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.''
Auth says he considers the present tax laws particularly unfair to widows or widowers of cartoonists, because while living artists who donate drawings can deduct only the value of the art materials used, the inheritance tax on their works is based on the market value of the art, often thousands of dollars for collections of drawings. Still, he says, he hasn't joined Art Pac because ''I'm concerned about a potential conflict of interest,'' and is donating a dozen cartoons instead.
Paul Szep of the Boston Globe, a former Canadian pro hockey player and steelworker, primes himself by taking in the early-morning news, running around a reservoir for two miles thinking about it, then going back to his drawing board. He draws to tapes of Beethoven, Schumann, Bruckner, and other classical composers. And he loves the daily deadline: ''You have to have that sense of panic every day that you've got to produce. You can't do it on a resort schedule.''
The director of Art Pac, political expert Robert Bedard, says its No. 1 issue is the National Heritage Resource Act, which would reinstate full-value tax deductions to creators of gifts for charitable institutions like libraries and museums. He formed the political-action committee 21/2 years ago, after his experience as finance manager for 1980 presidential candidate John Anderson, trying to recruit artists to donate works to his campaign. He says Art Pac is bipartisan, supporting legislators who support the arts. It raised nearly $250, 000 for the campaigns of Sens. Robert Stafford (R) of Vermont and John Danforth (R) of Missouri, as well as Democratic Reps. Morris Udall of Arizona, Paul Simon of Illinois, and Sidney Yates of Illinois. All were reelected.