The election was at 11:15 a.m., and within the hour of the victory they had the sign -- Welcome Mr. LEADER, about four feet tall and 16 feet long -- taped to his office wall and the three bottles of California champagne on ice in his office. Not that the new congressional minority leader knew about any of it, of course. Rep. Bob Michel (R-Ill.) hadn't a clue.

In the office, they were wearing buttons that said -- Michel For Leader. And Linda Steele, one of the staffers, was already so enthusiastic about Michel defeating Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.) for minority leader, that considering the Republican tide, she was playing with the notion of changing the button to -- Michel For Speaker. As in, of the whole House. As in, see you later, Tip O'Neill.

"We'll just tape over the word, Leader," Steele said.

And she laughed a winner's laugh.

There was great joy in the office. It was one of those small, semiprivate moments in Washington when the wheel of power spins and the one it lands on is turned away from the shadows of anonymity and into the floodlights.

The vote had gone well, "103 to 87, numbers that will go down in history," Steel said, and the flood of congratulatory calls was coming in, interrupted only by the congressmen who had come to call, including Tom Railsback (R-Ill.), "Hey, hey, everybody cheering?" and John Rousselot (R-Calif.), "Oh wow, look at that sign, that's great."

There was a sense of vindication in The Leader's office. Sharon Yard, The Leader's executive secretary, had put away the sign on her desk -- her normal Monday sign -- that said "Miserable Monday," and was saying, "Bob doesn't seek the limelight, as opposed to Mr. Vander Jagt, who always has because he's such a wonderful speaker. There was a phrase in this campaign, 'The showhorse against the workhorse,' Bob being the workhorse. I'm just so glad he won. It's such a good feeling to know that hard work is rewarded." sAnd Steele, referring to The Leader's hometown, said, "How's it playing in Peoria? Very well. Very well.

In time, others began to drift in.The staff, not just the job seekers who were already wandering in to submit their resumes now that Michel was so hot. The Leader's press secretary, Mike Johnson, was saying, "It's a period of enormous exuberance. Bob wins. Then, boom, five minutes later there are 1,000 decisions to be made, and it's like a hammer hitting you over the head and you realize what you're in for . . . it scares the hell out of me.

"The glory's already over.

"They congratulate you on the floor and from now on they're all over your butt to get things done. My problem now is dealing with it. Don't make mistakes."

A strange mix of joy and nervousness, the kind that makes you wish you had your hands in an industrial-strength deodorant. Overheard were requests for aspirin.

The calls kept coming. Senators. Congressmen. Michel was expected back momentarily. But just now he was in a meeting with the new Republican leadership. Could he call back?

Linda Steele busied herself changing the buttons, but not in anticipation of a speaker's race -- just to "Michel The Leader," pasting a "The" over the "For" and distributing them to the office staff.

Sharon Yard, her ivory Republican elephant dangling on a chain around her neck, answering calls, "Thank you so much, oh, Bob'll be so glad you called." n

And then, at 2:35, Dean Owens, a staff receptionist, answered the phone and her heart skipped a beat. Turning to Mike Johnson, she said, "Reagan's calling from the aircraft. Is there any way we can reach Mr. Michel?"

Johnson turned chalk.

"Damn," he said. "I knew I should've written down the number of that room where they were meeting." . . . It was 3:35 when The Leader waked in. By then almost everything was back to normal, even on so hectic a day as this. bBut when he came in, wearing his blue pin-striped suit, smiling his broadest smile, everyone went crazy. They stood to cheer him, and when he saw the sign in his office, he threw his hands to his head and tried to hold himself in. They were lined up to hug and kiss him now, and they were applauding.

So, into the breach.

He embraced each one, laughing and singing.

"Everybody," he shouted. "Everybody come kiss The Leader."

Reagan had already called three times from his airplane, which was flying from California to New York, and as the champagne corks popped, The Leader went to the phone, said the codeword -- "Rawhide" -- and was patched through.

"Rawhide," Michel said to the president-elect, "Well, my goodness, I'm thrilled by your call."

They spoke briefly, and when it was done, The Leader turned to his troops and said, "i was told to call him 'Rawhide,' and he says to me, Bob, this is Ronnie Reagan.' So much for all the code words and security."

A call from George Bush, the vice president-elect, came next, and The Leader said, "Hey, George. Brother, I'll tell you. Super-duper . . . you're a prince to call. By the way, your boss just called."

When things began to die down a little, The Leader turned to his staff. Yes, he had been nervous, Even though he felt certain he had the votes, he still couldn't be sure. "Did anybody else have trouble sleeping last night? I'll tell you, I was still tossing at 3:15, so I went down and poured myself a big shot of Harvey's Bristol Cream. The real heavy stuff."

A photographer came in and they all smiled and posed for pictures. "A group shot," Johnson said, "before we all get fired." Then, looking once more at the sign, and at the Michel The Leader button that was now pinned to his chest, The Leader asked, "Was it agreed to track this sign over to Vander Jagt's office, ha-ha-ha?"

The Leader had been surprised. He had been deliberately told by his administrative aide, Ralph Vinovich, that everyone had already been sent home. "I figured Ralph and I would just come back, put our feet up and have a brew," The Leader said, grinning. "I should have suspected that they all would do something like this." There was hardly even enough time to taste the moment when the word came that Tip O'Neill was waiting for The Leader, so the two of them could have their picture taken together, something cute for the wires, you know, the speaker with his opposite number, the new minority leader. w

"Speaker's waiting for you on the floor, Bob," someone said.

Speaker, Linda Steele just smiled.