NO ONE ON TODAY'S Washington scene resembles Bernard M. Baruch. Very likely no one ever will. Americans by and large are not overly fond of elder statesmen. Former presidents get honorary degrees and deliver commencement speeches. Otherwise they are ignored. Probably because he never served as an elected oifficial, Baruch was an exception. The "elder" he got, the more he was sought out. His bench in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House always drew a crowd; his pronouncements on Capitol Hill invariably brought forth big batches of constituent mail.

But as living institutions are wont to do, he often bored the dickens out of whatever younger generation was in power. John Kenneth Galbraith once called him the most successful humbug since Henry Ward Beecher. Maybe he was. Certainly he preached sermons. A reformed Wall Street speculator, Baruch made his millions and then hit the missionary trail to Washington determined to save his country from the inflationist "booze" that tempted even the most sober-minded capitalists during wartime. He headed the War Industries Board for Woodrow Wilson and joined him at Paris to make the world safe for capitalist democracy. At home he had dealt with the Du Ponts and Fords; now he faced Clemenceau and Lloyd George.

In Paris, Sundays were ostensibly days of rest. "With the onset of spring," writes Jordan Schwarz in one of several superb vignettes scattered generously through this fine study, "they took to the countryside to see for themselves how war had brought them abroad and made them Europe's creditor." Even before crossing the Atlantic, however, Baruch and his compatriots had seen enough to convince them that Adam Smith still had the only answer to Lenin's challenge. International well-being depended upon the free flow of goods across frontiers. An enlarged share for America was essential to maintain prosperity. And the nation that held down inflation and demobolized speedily would come out on top.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Europeans resented such preaching and Wilson's crusade ended in frustration and bitterness. But those Wilson had gathered around him never lost the faith and carried on the best they could. Baruch's endeavors shifted to American agriculture, in large part because he knew that he could "invest" in elections throughout the South and West and reap a handsome profit in influence. But he tempted fate in going for all the marbles and lost. In 1919 he gave Albert C. Ritchie a $5,000 contribution to help him win the Maryland governorship. Baruch foolishly encouraged Ritchie's presidential ambitions and dreamed of playing kingmaker.

Ritchie was too conservative even for 1920s-style politics. It was an odd speculation for a believing Wilsonian, but Baruch took his losses and looked elsewhere. Money could buy space in newspapers. It could also hire publicists and political experts who could keep the world up-to-date on Baruch's doings and vice versa. They did a good job. But with Arthur Krock of The New York Times an especially close relationship developed. Kindred souls, keepers of the Wilsonian flame, both recoiled from the heresy that sprang up in the Democratic Party during the New Deal.

Krock was valuable to Baruch because his column offered him an opportunity to criticize Franklin D. Roosevelt, yet still protect his good standing in the White House. "His expolitation of the fourth estate was predicated upon his quest to become the fifth estate." By his own account, it cost Baruch $200,000 to buy Hugh Johnson a seat on Roosevelt's Brain Trust. Neither Johnson nor the National Recovery Administration he headed lasted very long, but Roosevelt respected Baruch's power. He once confided to an aide that Baruch "owned -- he used the word -- sixty congressmen." Whatever you thought about Baruch's economic theories or his motives, said FDR, "those sixty congressmen had to be kept in line."

The New Deal put Baruch in a quandary. When Roosevelt declared war on the "economic royalists," he had nowhere to go. Not all that happy about the NRA or the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the battle lines now shaping up over tax policy really scared him. In which trench did he belong? His personal fortune was safe. "So I kept asking myself what was the matter." The future, that was the trouble. Restraint on profits during wartime was essential, but restraint on tax and social policy during peacetime even more so. The New Deal was headed for socialism.

In the end, Baruch stayed where he was. But he warned Roosevelt that his proposed tax policy would produce more unemployment than revenue. It was a good guess or mere coincidence, but the Roosevelt "depression" of 1937-38 broke the spirit of the New Dealers. War revived everybody. Baruch had seen it coming from afar. With a population of 66 million in a territory smaller than Wyoming, he wrote, Japan had to expand or strangulate. Having denied her opportunities in the West, "we say we will not permit her to expand in China. This is the real gist of the Pacific question."

After Pearl Harbor, Baruch served informally in many capacities, but was not given responsibility for wartime mobilization. At arm's length, FDR and the "old man" got on reasonably well. Baruch favored the Morgenthau Plan for de-industrializing Germany, but jumped off the bandwagon before it started rolling downhill. Suspicious as always of British machinations, Baruch was slow to adopt an alarmist view of Russia. Yet he claimed that one of his speechwriters originated the term "Cold War." Harry Truman, however, saw exactly how to play this wily old trout. He asked Baruch to present America's plan for international control of atomic energy to the United Nations. Neither superpower was ready for any plan at that stage, but Baruch had little time to criticize the Fair Deal while engaged thus on special assignment.

All his life Baruch had followed the gloomy trail of the Wall Street bear. He made money out of other men's follies, and tried hard to convince policy makers to follow his methods. But he lived in an inflationist era. Around him roamed all manner of powerful bulls -- corporations, labor unions, New Dealers, the rest -- each and every one convinced that low prices and unemployment stalked the land and that inflation was a friend. Jordan Schwarz wonders if Baruch might be vindicated after all. But that is a side issue. Schwarz has dealt successfully with every facet of Baruch's life, his least attractive qualities along with his best, his private ambivalence against his public certainty. Still better, Schwarz has produced a book that inevitably raises central questions about classical liberal tenets and industrial democracy. He pushes his readers to admit the peril, humbug or not, of ignoring these questions.