"Psst.

"There's the president over there. If you hurry you can get your picture taken with him. He looks really good, doesn't he? I mean, really healthy, like he's enjoying life."

Wait a minute.

President Reagan was not at the Washington Hilton last night for the Sixth Annual Public Policy Dinner given by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

But former president Gerald Ford was. And most of the people in the room simply called the long-time friend and fellow of the AEI, "the president."

Many of the 800 guests, which included Alejandro Orfila, secretary general of the Organization of American States; Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, ambassador to the United Nations and Murray Weidenbaum, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, stood up to applaud him. After he was introduced by William J. Baroody Jr., president of AEI, Ford warmed up the crowd with jokes before moving on to the hard sell for the institute and for America.

"Since I walked in tonight," Ford said, "a lot of people have been asking, 'How's your golf game?' Well, it's better. I'm hitting fewer spectators. Bob Hope calls me the hit man for the PGA. He says I'm the only one who can play four courses--simultaneously."

But after a few laughs, the 38th president went on to talk about "remaining committed to goals against neo-protectionism forces" and the importance of international trade without government interference.

Ralph Nader was spotted in the crowd. What was he doing there?

"Field work."

Lobbying?

"Seeing how the other side works."

Then David Hartman of ABC's "Good Morning America" was seen. (Not too hard to miss, as a matter of fact.) What brought him down from New York?

"The food."

But the real reason the guests gathered was not the filet mignon dinner. It was to see Hannah Holborn Gray, president of the University of Chicago, receive the Francis Boyer Award for outstanding work in promoting the relationship between public and private sectors.

"It was a great lady, Mae West, who said, 'Sometimes too much of a good thing can be wonderful.' This is too much of a great thing. It's wonderful, and I simply want to thank you," Gray said from the stage.

But the final address, which congratulated Gray and talked about economic growth was the show-stopper. President Reagan, still not there in person, suddenly appeared larger than life. It was a videotaped message on a huge screen.

"Thank you very much," Reagan ended the evening. "God bless you and good night."