How're you gonna keep him down on the lecture circuit after he's seen the Rose Garden?

Henry Kissinger opened his campaign for the vice presidency last night. He chose for his forum the receiving line of the 1980 Washington Opera Ball at the French Embassy.

"I'm the one man who can be vice president that the president doesn't have to worry about, because I can't become president," the foreign-born kissinger said. "I predict the boomlet will start."

Kissinger was in his now-familiar bantering mood as he shared the limelight with French Ambassador and Mrs. Francois de Laboulaye and Opera Society director Martin Feinstein, Opera Board chairman Christine Hunter and Ball chairman Nancy Kissinger.

Certainly Kissinger was the main drawing card of the evening. Some 200 people trying to buy tickets at $160 each had been turned away, according to Women's Committee chairman Evelyndi Bona.

"It just killed me to have to do that," Di Bona said.

The 650 luckey ones who made it were parceled out among 26 foreign embassies for pre-ball dinners before converging later at the Kalorama chateau of the French government.Though the skies had opened up earlier in the evening, the yellow-and-white striped tent stretched over the lawn for dancing survived without apparent damage.

For an hour and 15 minutes, ball-goers in black tie and designer gowns stood in line to meet the Kissingers. When Secretary of the Treasury G. William Miller and his wife arrived, Kissinger broke into a wide grin.

"If you keep inflation up, it'll be good for the Republicans," Kissinger told him.

Miller said he told the former secretary of state that "Unfortunately, it's down -- unfortunately for him."

The ambassadors of Morocco and Italy wanted to discuss business with Kissinger, just like the good old days. Kissinger told Morocco's Ali-Bengelloun to call him next week.

The guest list was heavy with official and unofficial Washington, starting at the top with Mayor Marion Barry and his wife Effi, continuing on to Congress with Sens. Mark Hatfield (R.-Ore.) and Ed Zorinsky (D.-Neb.), Rep. Jack Kemp (R.-N.Y.), then on to former CIA director Richard Helms, White House congressional liaison Frank Moore, feminist Gloria Steinem and her escort, attorney Stanley Pottinger, and once-leading Washington hostess Gwen Cafritz.

Ball gowns ranged from antique to modern and came in all different lengths. Carmen Petrowitz wore her grandmother's black-and-green silk and lace gown with 50 hooks at the back.

"It took me an hour to hitch her up tonight," said her husband Harold, an American University law professor.

Countess Ulla Wachtmeister wore a gown she made, copying an Yves Saint Laurent design. "Everything is too expensive," she said. "This way I can have more -- you know, the G street Remnant Shop."

Nancy Kissinger, on the other hand, opted for Oscar de la Renta, a black-and-white strapless number, which bared her shoulders approximately at her husband's nose. The Kissingers had dined at the British Embassy before the ball.

Aside from joking about his vice-presidential possibilities, Kissinger kept mum on whether he might do a rerun in Foggy Bottom as Ronald Reagan's secretary of state. "Listen, I can sound arrogant in so many other ways, and self-serving, without answering that question," he said. He added that Reagan hasn't asked him to campaign, "but I'll support him."

He said he was abandoning his aspirations for a seat in the Senate because New York's Sen. Jacob Jivits is running again.

On the Democratic side, Kissinger said, "Obviously, the one who is behind usually wants to debate," but added that he had enough trouble sorting out the Republicans without getting involved in their rivals' problems.

At the Moroccan Embassy earlier, presidential counsel Lloyd Cutler said he hadn't been surprised that Kennedy had not dropped out.

"But it's very difficult to change the results now that we have gone through the primary season," Cutler said over cocktails. "He certainly had a better finish than a start."

He called the Iranian situation "a very wild card -- the political balance there is so uncertain."

Cutler, a kind of Eminence gris , was making no hollow gesture where opera was concerned. A member of the Metropolitan's board of directors until he joined Jimmy Carter's White House, Cutler responded to Bengelloun's toast with a "not-too-sublet pitch for the cause of opera" everywhere.

Evelyn di Bona estimated that the opera ball would bring in between $130,000 and $150,000, topping last year's take.

During the festivities, Sen. Hatfield observed that "it's been referred to as a bastard art."

"Politics?" someone asked him.

"No, opera," Hatfield responded. "Well, maybe you could say that for politics too."

Bloomingdale's masterminded the French country decor, which included gendarmes in full dress at the front door and ball hostesses in straight-from-Hollywood peasant costumes in the Normandy style.

Bloomies chairman Marvin Traub said that it hadn't been difficult to achieve an authentic effect because "France is a country very important to us in the decorative arts."

Nancy Kissinger was making her debut as a charity ball chairman. She might be "no help to anyone" when it comes to making speeches or campaigning, she said, but for the sake of an aria she was willing to lend a hand.

"I like music," she said.

"It would have killed me if she had gotten all the attention," Kissinger said of his wife.