President Ford surprised Secretary of State Kissinger at a farewell reception last night by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian award.

Kissinger said he was moved, and certainly he was surprised. "It has taken us eight years in Washington to finally keep a secret," he said.

The entire diplomatic corps of the capital, host for the party at the Pan American Union, thought that very amusing indeed, and an air of easy good humor set in.

President Ford called Kissinger "this superior person," which the roomful of ambassadors, judging by their expressions, thought was quite apt. The President added that in his opinion Kissinger was the greatest Secretary of State in the history of the Republic.

Kissinger appeared to have lost some weight, and his trousers were comfortably losse, the waistband resting several inches lower than usual. Guests who have been adding, not losing, inches were rather put out every time the Secretary hitched his pants up.

He said, when someone asked him, that he has not yet hit on a publisher for his memoirs. "There was so much talk about it, I decided to just wait a little. I'll probably make some arrangement in March," he said.

His wife, Nancy, said she did not regard the reception as a milestone, really, and certainly not a sad one, but thought everybody was looking forward to something new. She is not writing a book, herself, she said when asked. "Not that I know of."

Kissinger said the ambassadors present were all so skillful that the only question had been how quickly all their requests over his 3 1/2 years as Secretary could be granted. (Moderate laughter.)

The President, Vice President, Rockefeller and the Secretary, all with their wives, were introduced by Nicaraguan Ambassador Guillermo Sevilla-Sacasa, dean of the diplomatic corps.

Betty Ford looked smasting in deep blue and appeared on top of the world, like a commercial for something wholesome but pleasant.

Kissinger spoke of Ford's decency and leadership after Watergate, saying it had been an honor to serve under him. He then thanked his colleagues at the State Department, adding it was good of them to put up with him.

"I'm glad he paid tribute to the people at the State Department." said Leonard Marks, former director of the United States Information Agency and a well-known lawyer. He surveyed the room full of nations, assembled like lambs and leopards in one peaceable kingdom to say farewell to the retiring Secretary. Then Marks added:

"Once I spoke with him about the people in the department [some of whom found Kissinger's brilliant forays difficult to keep up with] and he said to me

"'Why, Thomas Jefferson was a fine Secretary of State, and he had slaves.'"