"Look at it," Max Cleland shouted, pointing to his seven-year-old battered Oldsmobile in the restaurant parking lot."Isn't it beautiful? The only car in Washington to win an award."

Cleland, at 34 the youngest head of the Veteran's Administration, was talking about the "special award of merit" he got from Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), that crusty chronicler of government waste, for cutting out his chauffeur-driven government limousine.

"If a triple amputee gets himself to and from work every day," asked Proxmire, "how can any self-proclaimed Washington big shot hold up his or her head when being carried to and from work in a government car?"

Cleland wheeled himself up to the driver's seat, attached a prosthetic right limb and hook and, manipulating the special gears, moved out of the driveway. Cleland scared a back seat companion half to death, not with any lack of driving skill, but by his habit of wheeling his head around and gesturing with this left arm as he continued to talk non-stop - telling jokes, firing off enthusiastic experiences about what he would do for the V.A.

Aides and acquaintances quickly learn that Cleland wants neither help nor pity. Cleland whips his wheelchair down corridors at top speed and thrusts doors open with his shoulder as ferociously as a linebacker hits opponents.

One warm spring afternoon on a neighborhood playground, a college student watched Cleland, a former high school basketball star, at his favorite activity. Cleland wheeled his chair into position then sunk a hook shot from 10 feet out. The student stared. "Who is that guy, anyhow?"

Nine years ago this month Cleland had both legs and his right arm blown off in a grenade explosion in Vietnam. There were months of depression and lost hope when each task - to walk, drive a car, button a button - often failed. What got him down the most and is still a bitter memory is the "lack of optimism, lack of hope about me on the part of the doctors, nurses, any of the people who dealt with me. It was 'Catch 22.' I had to prove I could walk - before they gave me the limbs to do it."

Cleland was among the thousands of crippled Vietnam veterans treated like embarrassing relics of an unwanted war. He became one of the severest critics of the gigantic agency he now heads. Cleland testified before a 1969 Senate subcommittee that it took 18 months to persuade V.A. hospital doctors to fit him with artificial legs. Even then he had to practice on two inferior sets before they gave him a good pair. Cleland recalled that he got no wheelchair of his own for a year, went without pay for two months after he left the Army and that the V.A. refused to teach him how to drive. "I learned from another amputee."

Things are better now - the V.A. teaches driving and looks to other basic needs denied Cleland in 1969 - but Cleland says a major challenge still is to change attitudes in the huge agency which employs 226,000 civil servants and has a budget of $19 billion Cleland ignores bureaucratic words like "efficiency" and "balanced budgets," and brings different adjectives to his "love work" as he calls his job. Instead of "institutionalizing indifference" Cleland is striving no "institutionalize hope, caring, sensitivity."

He places strong emphasis on upgrading rehabiliation and readjustment counseling, and the expansion of drug and alcohol programs. He plans to replace a current "counseling vacuum" with walk-in guidance clinics and half-way houses - "so that a veteran can get help, not with the 'brand' on him that he is sick and has to be sent to a psycho ward."

Without that kind of help, Cleland foundered along. "About 18 months after I came back, I really hit bottom. I was still learning to walk. I wasn't making progress. Things were all screwed up. I spent a lot of time asking 'why me?' I let loose and sobbed the deepest gut sobs you can. Finally, I came to an acceptance that this is the way life would be. There comes a time when you lose your fantasy. It's a terrible realization, but it's necessary." That acceptance, friends and family who believed in him, and "faith in the good Lord" were the key to his rehabilitation, says Cleland.

Another key was the positive image Cleland has of himself. "I went into the war a winner. I wasn't accustomed to losing. I was dammed if I was going to be defeated. Those who do not have that strong sense of self before a traumatic injury have a much tougher time.

Cleland could have been invented by Hemingway - the blond, 6-feet-3" All-American Boy, the straight-A student who excelled at everything from French to basketball in Lithonia, Ga., a suburb at Atlanta. He won the outstanding senior award, placed second in the state junior tennis singles, sang in the choir, worked in the grocery store after school.

His father is an automotive supply salesman, his mother, who worked as a secretary, said Max's determination came from somewhere inside himself. "He seemed born with it." Clelands ssys, "I am an only child and had good support at home and in my small Southern town. My desire for excellence was set by the third grade. After that I always wanted to be No. 1."

He laughs hertily as he recalls how the pond got bigger when he went to Stetson University in Florida and "The first thing I knew I was slapped into remedial English." The fraternity and extracurricular activities and the clowning stopped until he got his grades together.

An interest in politics began in 1963 when he was selected to attend a semester program at American University and visited President Kennedy's Oval Office. Idealistic and full of enthusiasm, he campaigned for a U.S. congressman from Georgia, got a masters degree in American studies, then entered the Army in 1965 "to find out more about the war."

Cleland had a cushy job as an Army aide, but felt guilty "shaking hands and serving sherry." he volunteered for Vietnam. Capt. Cleland received both the Bronze and Silver stars - and saw a landscape that "looked like the moon" around Khesanh where 100,000-plus tons of bombs had been dropped in a two-mile radius. Four weeks were left in his tour of duty on the morning of April 8.

He has been called a hero for saving the lives of other around him, but Cleland says his shielding others from the blast was only reflex action to a "freaky war accident." A live grenade rolled off a supply truck and Cleland moved toward it to throw it away. "I never touched it. The explosion blew me backwards. I opened my eyes and saw my right hand was gone. My right leg was gone, and my left foot; I saw my left boot lying off to one side . . . I fought to stay conscious because I knew as long as I did I was alive . . ."

His mother recalls the Army policy of informing families of tragedy. She can still see the black car coming down the hill near their home, arriving like clockwork every five days, bringing bulletins, cold and formal, in a telegram: "This condition is of such severity that there is cause for concern . . ." Cleland worried about his mother's reaction. He had a phone call placed, then holding his hand over a trecheotomy incision so that he could talk, spoke to his mother via shortwave radio.

Mrs. Cleland says, "The war was such a waste and drain on our youngmen." Cleland himself has few postmortems now. "You could drive yourself crazy with thoughts of what might have been. In a way I see it all coming full circle. It is unbelievable that I now have this chance to help others, at this stage in our history."

Cleland's "second life" began when he was released to Georgia and ran sucessfully for state senator in 1970. That when he met a man running for governor, who wanted Cleland to introduce him in Cleland's area. "He was terrific - I though, 'too bad he doesn't have a chance.' I was one of the first to underestimate Jimmy Carter," Cleland says with a laugh.

Cleland gave up his artificial legs in his successful 1973 reelection campaign. He had proven he could walk and they were too painful and slowed him down. The next year, after losing in a bid for lieutenant governor, Cleland was hired by the Senate Veterans Committee staff.

Cleland does not discount someday running for governor of Georgia. A politician who goes out of his way to put people at ease with gregarious patter, Cleland slips easily into platitudes until friends joke him out of them. Cleland is enough of a ham to bask in the national attention he now gets from magazines, newspapers and television, "Its gonna be hard to keep me humble.This morning the National Enquirer called - and then I knew I had really arrived," he joked.

Cleland lives alone in an apartment building that has no stairs, stores his dishes in the dishwasher where they can be easily reached. A friend ties windsor knots in his ties a dozen or more at a time, with wide loops so Cleland can slip them over his head when he needs them. A crusader to remove the architectural barriers that hamper so many handicapped, Cleland sponsored bills that changed many of Georgia's buildings. He wryly notes that he's seen more back entrances of hotels and other buildings - unloading ramps for trucks, if not for people, are a part of our society.

"Even the V.A. administrator's private bathroom has a step," he says.

Cleland's appointment has been hailed by other disabled veterans. One group wrote Carter, praising Cleland. "There are the daily realities of the aftermath of battle which will last until the day we die. We must depend on the knowledge, morality and compassion of the man who fills the post of administrator of veteran's affairs."

Cleland bristles at the few critics who question his administrative ability and see him as a symbolic curiosity. "Neither President Carter nor I would be a party to that." Cleland has appointed Rufus Wilson as a deputy administrator.He is a World War II disabled veteran, long in the V.A. system.

"In just five weeks I've made several policy decisions - including where in Portland, Oregon to place a $154 million hospital and a decision to consolidate computers in one data management division." He is pushing to install a $100 million computer to keep records and make benefit payments. "It will do in 12 seconds what takes two weeks now manually." The V.A. is working with the Labor Department in a review of veteran's on-the-job programs and has started sending out notices in disability checks notifying disabled veterans of their rights.

"We have a tremendous responsibility to reach out to veterans and lead them to water. The disabled have the highest unemployment of any veterans. Many don't know that they by law must get special preferences, that an employer who gets more than $10,000 in federal grants has to affirmatively hire them."

He already has made one of many planned drop-in visits to a V.A. hospital in his campaign to revitalize them. "I went into a hospital in Salt Lake City unannounced and the doctor on duty liked to keel over. Some have been in these hospitals 25 years and have never met the head of anything."

Within weeks, his transition study group will make recommendations to Cleland to reorganize this third largest agency which services 29 million veterans. Of those, more than 3 million are drawing disability compensation, with 450,522 of them disabled Vietnam veterans.

"Any one who questions this appointment should come back and see us in six months," says Cleland. The smile is confident. "They'll see this is not just a charade."