"There are many who would like to be here in my place," drolled Henry Kissinger, distinguished in black tie, and allowing his words to ooze out in a slow, deliberate accent as thick as German Chocolate. "But I'm glad you finally decided to follow our current president's motto: 'Why not the best?'"

With that opening retort, Henry Kissinger began his punctilious defense as the New York Friars Club's man of the year at a formal dinner Saturday night to which 1,500 leading entertainment, business and political leaders ahd been summoned, at up to $1,000 a ticket, in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria.

Those who came to toast the former secretary of state included Frank Sinatrai, Bob Hope, William F. Buckley Jr., Gregory Peck, Barbara Walters, emcee Kirk Douglas, Richard Salant, Henry Grunwald, Peter Nero, Jack Valente, Roger Moore and Mike Wallace who, explained Friar board member Seymour Goldfeld, was invited "four months ago -- way before this shah-Kissinger connection thing came up," the controversial "60 Minutes" segment shown last night.

Only now it had become the shah-Kissinger-Wallace connection.

"If Dr. Kissinger were reinstated as the secretary of state, I can see the headlines now," said Wallace. "'Kissinger in Tehran Having Talks With Ayatolah.' Can't you just hear them swapping tales about the shah? I sure would like to be a fly on the wall during that one."

Seated about 12 inches away, Kissinger looked like he wished Wallace were a fly on the wall as well, preferably not a wall at the Waldorf.

The only other time there seemed to be an air of ill ease was when Frank Sinatra blew in from behind the stage's black curtain to make a brief appearance, greeting his wife who was sitting at the head table, "Hi ya doll," and Kissinger as "Dr. Strangelove."

"You're a hell of a man, Henry," said Sinatra who took time from filming night scenes of the New York-based picture, "First Deadly Sin" to make an appearance. "The only question I have is who is more humble, you or me? And by the way, I've talked to Reagan and it's been arranged," and with that remark, Sinatra turned abruptly and walked out, leaving Kissinger reaching for a handshake which wasn't returned.

Barbara Walters, siding with her one-time opposition, said, "You may not always agree with Henry Kissigner decisions, but by God, he makes decisions." And then she ralated a story that Kissinger once walked into a room full of dignitaries, looked around and remarked, "I haven't seen so impressive a group of people since I was at the Palace of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors."

Bob Hope let go his usual fusillade of one-liners, saying when Kissinger was born the doctor slapped him and Kissinger retorted, "Wait a minute doctor, have we exhausted all the alternatives?" And on the Kentucky Derby: "Isn't it great a filly won the Derby today? I hope we don't learn next week she didn't run the whole race."

Kissinger was quick to address the shah-Kissinger-Wallace connection and "60 Minutes."

"They claim I was seeking editorial control," said Kissinger, his deep voice resonating from the ballroom's speakers like a bass drum. "I only asked that they run my complete sentences. They agreed to give my 14 minutes. The problem is I have no sentences less than 15.

"I heard also that Mike Wallace was out to do a hatchet job on "The Shah-Kissinger Connection.'"

Pause. An uneasy silence, just as Kissinger preferred.

"Any title which gives me second billing is a hatchet job."

The round of applause was the loudest of the evening.