Who is Bill Moss?

Tonight, Moss, a Dallas oilman, will present the First Annual William Moss Awards to six esteemed Americans--Walter Cronkite, Paul Samuelson, Jonas Salk, William H. Webster, Ernest Boyer, Alvin Weinberg--who have made "outstanding contributions" in their fields.

Five of the men had never even heard of Moss.

But they will be entertained at a sparkling dinner amid the marble columns and hibiscus trees in the OAS Building and will mingle with a sterling Washington guest list. Vice President George Bush will make the presentations and everyone will drink velvety wines and eat beef Wellington.

Along the way, the awardees may find out who Bill Moss is and why he is so interested in them.

"I don't know and have never heard of Mr. Moss," said Paul Samuelson, who was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics. "I just received this notice and put it down on my calendar. I don't know the purpose of it. But Cronkite's name guarantees good company . . . If you live long enough, you get a lot of awards. It would have been churlish to turn it down."

"It is most inconvenient for me to come to Washington at this time," said Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine. "But I am coming with the same spirit by which Mr. Moss did something so generous. No, I don't know him. What can you tell me about him?"

"Well, I was totally surprised, I knew nothing about it," said Ernest Boyer, famed academician and president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "Never met him . . . No contact at all with him."

By Washington standards, tonight's event is one of many elegant parties. White House Chief of Staff James Baker III has said he will be there, as has Richard S. Schweicker (who just resigned as Health and Human Services secretary), USIA Director Charles Z. Wick, Jean Smith, wife of Attorney General William French Smith, OAS Secretary General Alejandro Orfila and about 250 other familiar faces from the social, corporate and political worlds.

What is unusual, is how Moss, an extraordinarily wealthy Republican and frequent escort of Nancy Dickerson, managed to get everyone at his party--including his old buddy, the vice president, for whose presence most Washington hostesses would give up their last jar of caviar.

But first, it's important to understand how Moss launched The William Moss Institute (which has spent its first year polling Americans about what will concern them in the year 2000) by drawing in Ursula Meese, wife of presidential counselor Edwin Meese, as its executive director; Richard Wirthlin, the president's pollster, to handle polling; Richard Berendzen, president of The American University, to give the Institute an academic affiliation; and six famous and accomplished men to give it cachet.

Here's what they'll all get:

The six get no cash awards but fellowships will be set up in their honor at The American University.

The American University gets the results of the fancy polling plus the six two-year fellowships that will cost Moss a total of about $90,000 a year.

Ursula Meese gets her salary, which is in the neighborhood of $30,000.

Moss gets to be Santa Claus for a night--and gets a splashy entrance to Washington.

"People would want to know what's in it for me--that's only natural," Moss said yesterday in a telephone interview. "Frankly, the only thing in it for me is the personal satisfaction that I'm helping some people in this country."

"He is one man who has been very fortunate in his life and he wants to leave a legacy of sorts," says Ursula Meese. "I guess he's just taking to heart the administration's urging that the private sector should take more responsibility. I can't imagine he's doing it for publicity . . . no indication of that."

Moss, 62, said he had been thinking for some time about how to help Americans come to grips with their future problems. But it really all began about a year ago, when he came to town with an idea and a lot of money--about $250,000 for starters. By the end of January, he will have spent close to $400,000.

His concern, says the press release about the founding of the Institute, was that "the average American man and his family are not addressing those issues that will surely affect their futures."

Moss decided to address the issues through the elaborate polling. Aside from oil and institutes (he has another, the Free Enterprise Institute in Texas), Moss' interests include ranching and farming, real estate, movies and the good life. He is divorced from actresses Ann Miller and Jane Withers, a.k.a. Josephine the Plumber of TV commercial fame.

To launch his Washington institute, Moss first approached Robert Keith Gray, the prominent public relations man with close ties to the Reagan administration. Gray produced pollster Wirthlin for the surveys and Meese to run the office. Soon, Moss knew what would worry people tomorrow: energy, education, economics, health, crime and communications.

With all this in mind, Moss decided awards were in order. What better way to establish the fledgling Institute than to bring six famous men to Washington to be honored and to meet the vice president. So after identifying the troubling issues, the Institute polled the experts to come up with the top men in those fields: Salk for health and medicine, Boyer for education, Samuelson for economics, FBI chief Webster for crime prevention, Weinberg, director of the Institute for Energy Analysis at Oakridge, Tenn., for energy and Cronkite for communications.

Meese began arranging the awards dinner. And Moss had the vice president and Berendzen tucked away on his own. They were old friends from Texas.

"Bush says he's known him for 30 years," said the vice president's spokesman, Pete Teeley. "They have been friends from Odessa, Texas. He's doing it presenting the awards because he's a friend. The guy is involved in all kinds of charitable and philanthropic projects and that's about it."

"I think the association with a university gave some prestige to the project," said Berendzen.

And to get past the little problem that none of these celebrated men--except Cronkite--knew Moss, Berendzen stepped in and called them all personally.

"I think they were all very taken with the idea of having a fellowship named after them," said Berendzen. "It adds a dignity beyond a plaque for people of this stature."

The awardees seem to agree.

"I am very pleased," said Samuelson, "to have a worthy student study in my name."

"It's simply a wonderful opportunity for a young person," said Salk. "It's a noble purpose in that sense."