NEW YORK — New York. - "Journalists are the second most disliked professional group in the country,'' said Roger Rosenblatt in a one-man show, ''Free Speech in America,'' that opened last week at the American Place Theater here. Only one group ranks lower in polls: members of Congress.
''It must be true,'' said the man who does the essays on the MacNeil-Lehrer show and in Life magazine. ''Congressmen are the only people who seek out our company.''
That is so. Of course, being congressfolk -- a few of them are women -- it is on our expense accounts or in our homes that they seek us out. Some congressmen do not even have homes of their own, or if they do, they have forgotten where it is that they put their wives and children. They do, you know, sleep in their offices, in motel rooms or in group apartments on Capitol Hill, like fraternity boys. You meet them in laundromats.
Poor fools. They think it's all worth it because they are immune to sexual harassment laws and the Capitol Police stop all traffic when they cross Constitution or Independence avenues to vote on the fate of the Republic.
Now, George Bush, who was briefly one of them and who did not leave voluntarily, thinks he can be re-elected president by holding them up to ridicule. Actually, they can do that without outside help.
Ridicule in the highest does not frighten congressmen. Ridicule is their neighborhood, the place we all keep them -- except, of course, if we have trouble with a late Social Security check or something like that. Then men like Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, this state's joke on the nation, takes on the aura of Thomas Jefferson.
The president came here last week to see 220 people who could afford $1,000 each for lunch at the New York Hilton. He let those average Americans know that in 1992 he will not be running against Willie Horton again. No, this time he's after far bigger game: ''the tawdry, negative . . . liberal leadership of Congress.''
Even a crowd of corporate executives and bank presidents did not react with much enthusiasm to such nonsense. The power of the Horton image in 1988 was that people are afraid of thugs and rapists. No one, and most certainly no one who can afford $1,000 for lunch, is afraid of House Speaker Tom Foley and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
In an age where the same people are financing both the Republican and Democratic parties and their candidates, Mr. Bush's luncheon guests can buy and sell the Democratic congressional leadership. That's what's really tawdry in Washington.
I don't imagine that the president, sitting between the chief executives of RJR Nabisco and Pepsico, really believed his audience thought for even a minute that the United States of America has been run these past 10 years by the Congress, or by Democrats, or by liberals, or by labor leaders.
All the Democrats' horses and all the Democrats' men have not checked President Reagan or President Bush and have not balanced for a moment the decade-long transfer of wealth from wage earners to the bonus babies at the Hilton.
Even this crowd must have thought the president was a little out of touch, or just jet-lagged, when he said the solution to the country's economic problems is to lower the interest rates on Visa and MasterCards.
The interest is not the problem, sir. We have used up our credit lines. And aren't you the guy who said we should save more money -- to deepen the investment pool of American business -- rather than run out and buy everything that glitters until we can't get an approval code when stores check our plastic?
Congress-bashing is among the most honorable of American sports, because it's hard to say anything that's not true about the cranky and bloviated men of Capitol Hill. The Congress is always vulnerable. Even give-'em-hell Harry Truman got away with attacking a ''do-nothing Congress'' that had approved two of the most important pieces of legislation in U.S. history -- the Marshall Plan and the GI Bill of Rights.
But now, revealed by television, Congress is too easy a target -- which is why so many of the $1,000-a-platers seemed uneasy as the president described a make-believe powerhouse up on the Hill.
I think he has to do better. Perhaps if the governor of this state, Mario Cuomo, decides to run, Roger Ailes and Mr. Bush's other political bouncers can work up some anti-Mafia commercials.
But, for now, we have to live with comedy: the comic notion that the country is being run by people even less respected than journalists. Who knows, maybe it can work. I would guess that if Mr. Bush runs against the Congress and the economy picks up, he will win. If he runs against the Congress and the economy continues to sag, he will lose.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.