WILLIAM SAFIRE's columns in The New York Times occasionally sound like crank calls from a puncrazed gag writer. He does have a weakness for word games. He also expresses outrageous opinions, sometimes persuasive and always provocative, even when wit dims his meaning. Safire is a gaudy flame on display in a gray museum, so every spectator pays attention.

Now comes Safire the novelist who is a compelling figure too. Improbable, occasionally offensive, but genuinely entertaining. The novelist has suppressed the polemical excesses of the columnist, though he still can't resist the aroma of a warm pun.

"Time wounds all heels," one character observes. The reader gulps. "I thought I heard a presidential seal bark," says another character. The reader thinks there is a fly in his soup.

Safire is not playing for cheap laughs, however. This is a serious Washington "what-if" novel, and given the limits of that genre, it is an entertaining story, sustained by marvelous plot complications and a feast of semi-believable charcaters types. The mechanics are handled so adroltly, one admires the fictional house that Safire has built.

The trick with the "what-if" novel is to draw the reader quickly past an extraordinary "what-if" premise which is usually so improbable that any concentrated thought would defeat it. Safire succeeds spectacularly, considering the extreme premises of his story.

What if an American president, flying in a Soviet helicopter with the Russian premier, were ambushed in a Kremlin assassination plot that left the premier dead and the president blind?

If you get past that one, there is another. What if tiis American president had already gone blind for 40 hours on a campaign whistlestop (he was making it with his sexy photographer in the upper berth when the train stopped suddenly and he bumped his head) and he had kept the previous blindness a secret from the public?

Now you are aready for the story. It is about the back-and-forth in high places, as some folks try to remove the president through the 25th Amendment on presidential disability and his loyal White House aides struggle to keep him in power.

The pace is very fast, punctuated with the required moments of taut emotions when friends and lovers conspire and deceive, couple and uncouple. This is not, I admit, my favorite kind of novel. The mechanical tricks are so obvious that, whenever a character makes an offhand observation which is not instantly relevant, one knows that it will be a crucial tidbit for the action of the next chapter. After the first several tautenings of emotion, I begin glancing ahead mentally, blocking out the twists and turns of plot. I admit also that Safire out-twisted me at most points along the way.

What I think makes the successful "what-if" novels is not only the unraveling of plot, but its service as a sort of convincing travelogue, a story that takes the reader into an unfamiliar world and shows him around, telling how things work in that strange land.

Saffire's strange land is inside the White House, for which he has special credentials as tour guide. The former speech writer wrote a valuable book about the Nixon Administration, Before the Fall , which was not much appreciated because of bad timing and his generous prospective toward the Watergate players. With a little imagination, one could see this novel as safire, perhaps unconsciously, recasting the scandal as an exculpatory fable, a chance to re-imagine why his good friends did bad things or whatever. On that level, the explanations of White House behaviour add up to a sort of moral gibberish.

On another level, Safire sounds quite authentic in describing the mechanical reflexes of those cool, quick-thinking people who cluster around presidents and take themselves so seriously.

Safire, I think, it both contributing to the mythology of White House power games and describing the reality. These people do exist, we know that no, and Safire knows how they move and talk and fornicate.

If I had a weakness for word games, I would call them the Kool-aides. They are clever beyond calculation, certain of their coolness, generally immune to self-dount, emotions, human sympathy. When intelligent people sacrifce that much of themselves in order to maintain position, the results are bound to be bad. The mythology requires it.

The myth of Kool-aides began, I guess, with Sherman Adams, the iceberg commandant under Ike. It was elaborated by the Sorensens and Bundys of the 1960s, then carried to felonious extremes by the Nixon men.

I think Safire wants us to sympathize with these creatures, perhaps to prattle afterwards about how White House power does this to people and isn't that a shame. I am not so sure it is not the other way around. The Kool-aide sophistry makes life in the White House easier for these characters, not more difficult. It is a very modern philosophy which permits one to do any damn thing that comes along, in the name of tactical advantage, for the worthy purpose of survival. When things go foul, as of course they must under this absence of values, it is a bit difficult to choke up for the victims.

Safire is a man of human sympathy (despite his Kool exterior) and, in the end, he allows them to crash gently. I will not spoil his clever ending by describing it here, but the conclusion suggests the hope that the connivers, including the blind president, have arrived at a moment of grace, that they lost power but gained a new vision of themselves.

Maybe so. One would hope that is true, in art and life. All the same, I am glad these people are out of the government.