President-elect Ronald Reagan strode purposefully to the microphone at the American Enterprise Institute's fourth annual public policy dinner last night and was greeted with the expected tumultuous applause. The guest list was large (1,500) and powerful -- the Reagans, former president Gerald Ford, a raft of congressmen, hosts of ambassadors and all manner of former high-ranking officials from previous administrations. Many seemed impatient for the arrival of Jan. 20.

It was a dinner to honor the work of William Baroody Sr. who, at the time of his death last July, has shepherded the think tank from its moribund days in the early '50s to its present, and increasing, influence.

"The virtue and vigor of the American people is our greatest resource," said the president-elect in his soothing voice. "And no one knew that better than Bill Baroody."

Reagan, who apologized for "speaking and running" shortly left the stage at the Washington Hilton with his wife, Nancy, bound for another dinner.

For the AEI crowd, which included the august and conservative likes of social commentator Irving Kristol, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Arthur Burns, economist Paul McCraken and theologian Michael Novak, it was also a night for backslapping and hearty congratulations -- at how far they'd come, and how far they plan to go.

"On Nov. 4 something happened that Bill foresaw," said Ford. "The American people wanted a change of direction. While we held the line in Congress," he continued, America "gradually became more attracted to the ideas Bill Baroody put forward. Bill always understood two things: purpose and order. He believed in a moral order."

"You know," said Rep. Paul McCloskey (R-Calif.), looking around the audience moments before Reagan spoke, "we have this marvelous breath of fresh air that sweeps through the country every four years or so. It's a period of excitement and hope -- and it lasts about five months. The main thing now is to be ready on Jan. 20 -- so we can move."

The reception that preceded the dinner was swarming with members of both parties. Rep. John Rhodes, until recently the minority leader in the House, stood by calmly, greeting friends. "I expect to be a very active elder statesman," he said with a smile. "And I'm going to be able to do it without worrying about how it affects 192 other Republicans."

"The main point," said AEI resident scholar Novak, speaking about AEI's role in Washington lo these many years, "is the competition of ideas. aThat is very important. After all, all ideas have something wrong with them."

Novak ascribed the presence of a theologian like himself at the think tank to Baroody Sr., saying that he "understood that the secular, conventional wisdom didn't take seriously enough culture, family and religious stirrings." Baroody knew these things would emerge, said Novak. "And they did -- in Iran, Poland, Nicaragua and in the U.S."

Richard Allen, Reagan's foreign policy adviser, who was hurrying his wife along to dinner, said that he expected the relationship between AEI and the administration to be "a happy one."

Arthur Burns, now affiliated with AEI, sat at his table near the front of the room, and commented on the pros and cons of the think-tank way of life. "There's a greater opportunity for reflection, of course," he reflected.

Burns went on to characterize Reagan as the FDR of the '80s. "He has an extraordinary capacity to evoke hope and confidence. And he has a marvelous voice, a voice," added Burns, "that inspires confidence. He reminds me more of FDR than any president in between."

Ford sat at his table, also at the front of the room, seeming quite relaxed.

His wife, Betty, he said, was at home with the flu. A reporter approached him with notebook in hand. "Oh, come on," said Ford with an aw-shucks grin, "you don't want to talk to a has-been."

Alan Greenspan, now a consultant in New York and once chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Ford, moved with great aplomb throughout the evening. Would he be coming back to Washington during the next four years? "I hope not," he said. "I was here for three years. I've done my bit." He reflected on the Cabinet choices announced by the president-elect earlier in the day -- and one who wasn't announced. [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] said, "is a first-rate choice. Those who think he's tainted by Watergate are looking at things upside down. This country owes that man a debt of gratitude. It may never," he added dramatically, "learn fully what it owes."

Wiliam Baroody Jr., who worked for the Nixon and Ford administrations and succeeded his father to the presidency of AEI, stood by all night accepting the vigorous handshakes and backslaps of a string of admirers. "Good stuff," said one. "He would have loved this," said another, in reference to Baroody Sr.

"My father," said Baroody from the podium, "looked upon many here tonight as a kind of larger family. His smaller family keeps growing," said Baroody, referring to the large Baroody clan, "and the larger one will, too."

Over at the side of the room, Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, who sported a red bow tie, lent a historical perspective to the evening. "Great statesmen of the past," he said, "have not been men of ideas.They've usually been preoccupied with using ideas. The great statesmen were those who had the power to bring people together, who had a sense of the important ideas of others, and how to apply them to his time."

That, he said, entails compromise. "In a representative form of government like ours," he added, "you can never have permanent enemies. AEI has been a liberating institution -- it brings people together who might not have spoken to each other."