It was a golden age at Howard University, Kenneth Clark is saying in a voice cured by a lifetime of psychology lectures, 40 Marlboros a day, and, right now in his hotel suite, a splash of Chivas Regal taken neat but slow.

"Howard was the beneficiary of the idiocy of racism in American higher education," says Clark, class of '35.

"The faculty! We had Ralph Bunche, we had Alain Locke who was the first black Rhodes scholar, and we had Francis Cecil Sumner in the psychology department. People like Sumner weren't invited to teach at Harvard or the University of Chicago. They were black."

At 64, Clark has the fine and easy bluntness of a man who never understands why people -- particularly the liberal establishment which has lionized him -- ger upset at the things he says.

He made his mark with studies in the early '50s on the effects of segregation and prejudice on children both black and white -- research which became a powerful force behind the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision in which the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation.

But he has wielded his power as spokesman and educator in a manner wonderfully inconsistent with the various caprices intellectuals indulged in afterwards on the subject of achieving racial equality.

He demanded, in 1970, a tough back-to-basics school curriculum that put District of Columbia educators, who'd invited his opinion, into pandemonium. He resigned, in 1969, from the board of Antioch College when it permitted militant black students to establish a dormitory and study program which excluded whites. He attacked a mansion full of potential white Westchester County contributors to the National Welfare Rights Organization one Sunday afternoon in the mid-'60s -- because he doubted their sincerity. And he declared in 1964 that civil rights demonstrations were losing their efficacy, well before some of the great marches on Washington.

Mention of this last opinion prompts him to say: "The moral there is: don't listen to college professors."

But he listened, of course, to Bunche and Locke and Summer.

"They taught us about the use of disciplined intelligence in achieving social justice. Then they said: 'don't come back to Howard. Get your PhD and go to a nonsegregated school.' We were the next generation, and they were training us consciously, oh very consciously."

Clark starts another Marlboro with a gold lighter. He leans his elbows on his knee and smokes with energetic luxury, a happy man, it seems -- a notion that neither his wife Mamie nor his son Hilton choose to dispute, even when Clark complains about the mammoth dinner honoring him last night. "I hate these things. I don't understand them," he says.

More than a thousand leaders of education, civil rights, labor, politics and civil rights are in back of the tribute, from A.T.&T. Chairman Charles L. Brown to U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young to Georgia State Sen. Julian Bond.

The dinner marks not only the 10th anniversary of its sponsor, the Joint Center for Political Studies, which Clark helped found, but the 2kth anniversary of the Supreme Court's school desegration ruling.

Since then, he has prospered as one of the pet paradoxes of the liberal establishment: "I'm against knee-jerk anything." he says.

A lifelong Democrat, he nonetheless went out of his way to endorse conservative Republican James Buckley in his Senate race against Patrick Moynihan.

"That's the only argument we've ever had that my wife didn't win," he says, provoking a moment of glare from the corner armchair where she sits in a rust-colored wool dress.

When "relevance" was the major issue in education, Clark -- then a professor at CCNY -- told a reporter: "I never responded to the relevance kick. When students questioned the books I assigned, I'd tell them they didn't have to be in my class if they knew what books to read."

The again, any student knew what to expect when he heard Clark step behind the lectern and announce: "good morning, let's get set to think."

When militant ousted Howard president James N. Nabrit Jr. in 1967, and proposed Clark as his successor, Clark said he wanted no job that Nabrit had been fired from, and rubbed salt in radical wounds by further proposing that Howard should become a non-racial institution.

Before George McGovern had eveh proposed a basic family allowance, Clark had opposed it. He urged that business be invited to run schools. He insisted in November 1970 that black schoolchildren, whatever argot they spoke in the ghetto, should be taught standard English. (Washington school board member Charles Cassell called him a "racist" for that particular shot.)

Isn't he then, more of a conservative than a liberal in retrospect?

Clark's eyes flash happily. "My plan for the Washington schools was very conservative, of course it was."

Then he redoubles the paradox by pointing out that, "I was attacked at the time for being a radical authoritarian, however."

As Howard psychologist James Bayton says, recalling Clark as a classmate: "He will not bend to the popular view. He's an independent thinker."

Or, as Clark recalls President Carter putting it during a 10-minute chat in the Oval Office earlier in the day: "You're very persistent."

Clark turns to his wife: "Would you say bullheaded or persistent?"

"Both," she says.

His son Hilton, now a partner in a consulting firm Clark founded on retiring from CCNY, is asked what kind of father this radical authoritarian made.

"Unh-unh!" Clark shouts, scrambling out of the room while his wife shaker her head. Hilton eyes the doorway that Clark comes creeping back through to place a mock-pistol forefinger at his son's temple.

"Great" Hilton says, raising in-all-seriousness eyebrows.

Clark still gets up at 6:30 in the morning ("She won't let me sleep," he says, glancing at his wife) to work the 14-hour day which has produced seven books, put him on the boards of corporations and colleges, brought about the founding of the Northside Center for Child Development, which his wife still heads, the Metropolitan Applied Research Center Corporation, and his consulting firm, Clark Phipps Clark & Harris Inc., which advises clients on multiracial development.

He's now writing a book to be entitled "Beyond the Ghetto."

"The immediate barrier to the writing is what is going to happen to the cities if more whites move back in. Wili we have more concentration of blacks in the ghettos? The indicatins are yes. I'd like to think it was true that class is becoming more important than race in peoples' perceptions, but I think that judgment [currently being debated among social scientists] is premature.

"A lot has changed. A lot more is going to change. The situation remains volatile."

From hard times in Harlem -- where his mother was a shop steward in a garment factory -- to a 10-room home in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and to the seat in front in 1,000 applauding people: Clark says it was people like Francis Cecil Sumner at Howard who made all the difference.

"He didn't just teach psychology, he taught integrity. Once you had your facts, that was the basis on which you defended yourself."

The problem, of course, is that golden ages only exist when you're exiled from them.

"I worry I'll fall into the old oaken bucket and revere the past," Clark says, knowing he can't go back to Howard -- not, really, that he ever left.