THE THIRTEENTH MAN A Reagan Cabinet Memoir By Terrel H. Bell Free Press/Macmillan. 195 pp. $19.95

TERREL BELL's memoir of his four years as Ronald Reagan's secretary of education isn't precisely the kiss-and-tell bombshell that advance reports may have led you to expect, but it's a revealing and damaging document all the same. Though Bell is careful to emphasize his loyalty to Reagan and his belief in the fundamental goals of the Reagan presidency, what The Thirteenth Man demonstrates above all else is the essential shallowness of that presidency and the extent to which, in the first term especially, it has been hostage to right-wing ideologues; Bell may be a loyalist but he tells the truth as he sees it, and the truth is not pretty.

As secretary of education Bell was the low man on the Reagan totem pole, both because his department was the 13th in Cabinet rank (hence the book's title) and because the incoming administration had made the abolition of that department a matter of high priority. It is something of a mystery -- one not solved by this book -- that Bell chose to accept the position in light of what seemed its certain termination; it is no less mysterious that he was offered the job in the first place, inasmuch as in his previous government service he had compiled a fairly consistent record of support for a significant federal role in education, a role the Reaganites were determined to reduce drastically or, if possible, to eliminate in toto.

So it's a nice twist of history that not merely did Bell take the job but that in the end he had the last laugh: he kept the Department of Education alive and left it, if anything, healthier and more resistant to White House meddling than it had been when he signed on. Whether this is a good thing depends on one's view of the educationist establishment with which Bell has been considerably cozier than his successor, William Bennett, but it most certainly is testimony to Bell's resourcefulness, tenacity and character; he was the good guy in this particular battle, and for once the good guy won.

The fight, as Bell describes it, was between him and the forces of education on one side and Edwin Meese and the forces of extreme reaction on the other. For those disposed, as I am, to believe the worst of Meese at every turn, there is much comfort to be found in the pages of The Thirteenth Man. It was Meese, the president-elect's counselor-to-be, who interviewed Bell for the education secretary's job in January of 1981, and it was Meese who soon thereafter became Bell's chief adversary in the fight over the department's future; in describing his foe, Bell is polite but unsparing.

"I grew fascinated with Ed Meese and his cocksure certainty in all matters, which was displayed both in what he said and how he said it," Bell says of their first encounter. "Here was a man who literally detested the federal government. He viewed the upcoming Reagan presidency as a magnificent opportunity to smash the government programs that had created a 'welfare state.' " By Bell's account, Meese, as "keeper of the radical right dogma" in the White House, sought to advance his cause by infiltrating the government with undersecretaries and assistant secretaries sympathetic to it; thus the question of staffing the Department of Education immediately became a conflict between Bell, who "wanted to select leaders on the basis of their qualifications without concern for political ideology," and Meese, who wanted "true believers" who would act as his agents.

In the end Bell came out on top, but only, he believes, because Reagan "had wisely assured his cabinet that he would not force us to employ senior staff that we did not want." This veto power enabled him to ride out Meese's assault, though he found it necessary to accept a few of the hard right's errand boys in order to reach an accommodation of sorts with the White House; "I had succeeded in assembling a staff that was a balance between moderates and ideologues, making it possible for me to have credibility in the education community as well as to do my job."

But that was scarcely the end of his troubles: "Ed Meese was the point of concern. I felt I was in fairly good standing in all places but there." What he depicts as a campaign of unceasing harassment was directed against him from the White House, presumably without the president's knowledge. Almost as soon as his staff was in place valued members of it came under direct and indirect attack; the resignation of William Clohan, his undersecretary, was demanded and eventually exacted. Further, the Justice Department "was determined to weaken civil rights enforcement in the nation's colleges and schools," a reflection "of apparent bias among mid-level right-wing staffers at the White House" and the Office of Management and Budget, who called Martin Luther King Jr. "Martin Lucifer Coon," dismissed Arabs as "sand niggers," and referred to the law governing women's collegiate athletic programs as "the lesbian's bill of rights."

Amid all this nastiness, vituperation and office politics Bell somehow managed to keep his department alive and even to strengthen its position, to the point at which the zealots were at last routed and "the U.S. Department of Education was now a permanent cabinet-level agency in the federal structure." In great measure he accomplished this through the release and promulgation in 1983 of "A Nation at Risk," the withering critique of American education that quickly became the foundation upon which the school-reform movement was built. For a time, during the reelection campaign of 1984, that movement had the strong vocal support of Ronald Reagan; but after the election had been won the president's interest disappeared, leaving Bell with a bitter sense of frustration and loss.

These emotions are expressed with Bell's customary good manners and low-keyed prose, but there can be no doubt that he left office -- he did so as the second term began -- with few remaining illusions about Reagan and none about the "secret society" of the movement conservatives. His book seems intended as a cautionary tale, one about what happens when we elect a likeable, well-intentioned president who has no real interest in the actual business of government and therefore leaves that business to those with private grudges and timetables to pursue. The game played against the secretary of education was the same as the one in the Iran-contra affair: government unchecked and undisciplined, responsible to no one, devoid of either political or moral bearings. If history eventually judges this to be the chief legacy of the "Reagan revolution," readers of The Thirteenth Man will not be surprised. ::