It was a Sunday evening late in the campaign, and Edwin Meese III, Ronald Reagan's chief of staff, was running late.He was booked on a 6:10 flight to Florida, and it was nearly 6 when Mitchell Stanley, an aide, delivered him to the main terminal of National Airport.

Stanley and Meese, laden with packages, last-minute memorandums and a bulging briefcase, dashed into the terminal like twin O. J. Simpsons. The plane, however, was at the North Terminal, half a mile away.

They rushed back into the car, and crept along through the dense airport traffic until Stanley could park and Meese jump out again and resume his dash. As he did, Meese's briefcase flew open, scattering papers all over the sidewalk. He scrambled to collect them. Then on, breathless, to the main counter.

Too late. Stanley remembers cringing a little as Edwin Meese III, a 16-hour-a-day man whose specialty is keeping on schedule, made ready to speak.

"Well," Meese said. "I guess I'll have to catch the next flight.

By all available accounts, Edwin Meese III never loses his temper. He is now director of the transition -- President-elect Reagan's top interim executive -- and will join him in the White House after January 20 as counselor to the president. And since Reagan holds distinguished-visitor status here until his inauguration, Ed Meese is the first ranking resident Republican to stake out a claim in the Federal city.

Since Reagan clearly likes Meese's style, it behooves all students of political zoology to examine this early specimen of the new administration. The quick study from early dispatches:

1. With Reagan: An old friend. Can be trusted to report objectively on staff recommendations. Loyal, does not grab for glory, create turmoil or cry wolf. A quick intelligence, able to grasp complicated situations. A relaxing force.

2. With staff: Relates well. Handles hard cases personally. Easy to work for as long as you are on time, energetic and willing to play on a team. Believes informed staff is motivated staff.

3. Management theories: Uses what he calls "college football coach" system of making best use of available personnel. Considers firing a last resort and form of management defeat. Fascinated by organizational problems of constantly changing situations. Uses colored pens to code complicated schedules .

4. Personal: Yale graduate, law degree University of California at Berkeley. Married to his childhood sweetheart, Ursula Home, La Mesa, Calif. Three children. Hobbies organizational problem-solving, listening to police scanner radio at home, outdoors activities.

His bailiwick is organization, and his bastion is the transition offices at 1726 M St., NW four floors above the Yummy Yogurt storefront below. The ground floor lobby often overflows with uniformly pin-striped callers seeking access to the new era dawning above. There, Meese's office can be recognized by the line of supplicants and advocates that forms and reforms in front of it. bMeese is the boss, but the boss is, as one staffer put it, "imminently and eminently interruptable."

Phone call for Mr. Meese from Mr. William Casey. "I'll be right there."

Over his desk is a Norman Rockwell picture of Governor Reagan showing four faces alternately exuberant, pensive, thoughtful and charismatic. At the desk is Meese, 6-feet-tall, well-groomed, busy. His open briefcase reveals the selection of colored pens. On a large conference table is a birthday cake that bears his picture, presented by Vice President-elect Bush when Meese turned 49 last week. The portrait in-icing fails to capture the increasingly famous Meese smile, cherubic, disarming and almost incongruous the smile that separates organization man from organization machine; for it is organization, not policy, that is Meese's speciality.

"My wife says I need management charts for bedtime reading," Meese said. "That's not really true, but studying management is sort of a hobby of mine. My approach is taken from my experience with military, education and government -- and what they have in common is that you get people handed to you. So I take the college football approach. Take the players you have and do the best you can."

A former deputy district attorney in Alameda County and vice-president of Rohr Industries Inc. of Chula Vista, a Fortune 500 company. Meese first joined Reagan as legal secretary of his first administration as governor. As befits a San Diego professor of law, his manner is collegial. The 1980 Reagan campaign, however, did not always have a collegial atmosphere. But when the going got tough, Meese won out.

Early in the campaign, John P. Sears, Reagan's highly respected campaign manager, had started weeding out Meese's associates on the campaign staff. Reagan staffers Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger left the camp. It seemed like Meese would be next to go. But in a surprise announcement on Feb. 28, it was Sears who got the boot. Meese, Reagan's "old friend," was retained, and New York lawyer William Casey brought in as campaign manager. r

Since then, Sears has criticized Meese for "casualness" in seeing that the governor was briefed on issues, and claimed that although Meese was responsible for the campaign budget until September Meese "didn't really have a budget."

Meese, who is said to have kept his cool throughout that shakedown, is not about to lose it now.

"There was never any hostility between John Sears and me," he said. "Yes, we certainly do have different styles, but maybe the governor liked that. The thing about briefings was just not true. I think the governor knew it, and I think John knew it. At no time did anyone complain to me that there was any problem about that."

After Sears' departure, Deaver and Nofziger were returned to the fold. After the election, however, Lyn Nofziger -- a large, sharp-tongued man who had been Reagan's press aide until replaced by a Sears choice -- departed once again.

"Oh, Lyn hasn't really gone away," Meese remarked. "He'll still be part of the thing. Part-time. But doing something other than press. He's an old-time friend."

the phone rings. A White House messenger must have Mr. Meese's signature.

When it comes to transition matters, Meese leaves no room for confusion about who makes the decisions. He does.

"I don't like the notion of 'participatory government,' as if you were giving people a vote," he said. "But you have to give people a chance for input. Then, when a decision is made, they are expected to live up to it as if it were their own. I press for that."

Meese's unflappability, in fact, contributes to the line in front of his door. "I don't have any compunctions about interrupting him," said Ed Thomas, his chief assistant since 1968. "I do it all the time, in fact." Another transition employe, however, says there are a few Meese warning signs to look out for. "When he takes off his glasses and looks at you, your time is up. And if he starts making chopping motions with his hand, illustrating points A, B and C, you'd better be writing it down."

But accessibility has always been his strong suit. "Yeah," said one veteran political reporter, assessing the Meese style. "You know, at first it was a big deal if you were one of the one's who had Meese's home phone number, because he'd always talk to you when you called. Then the word got out, and the number was no good any more, because it was always busy."

In Washington, the way to get to Meese is to line up in front of his door, or lie in ambush for him in the halls. As for the phone -- well, it takes four staffers to answer his calls, which average one every two minutes all day long. Perhaps because of all the input, decisions are not always immediately put out.

"There's a critical time for every decision," Meese said. "You don't want to be too early, or too late. It's not a delay unless you miss the timing."

The phone rings. Carol Patrick, his secretary, says "Mr. Meese wants to see you, sir. We'll get you in. Don't worry."

Timing: Meese arises at 5:40 a.m., and his daily schedule is as precise as he can make it thereafter. He usually rides into town at 6:30, often with other members of the transition team. The first meeting of the day is at 7, on policy. From 7:45 to 8 a.m., the day's new business is discussed. From 8 until 8:30, he meets with division heads.

Then the free for-all begins.

"I see a lot of people in the halls," Meese said. "If I can solve their problem there, I do it. I move around a lot. Maybe I'll do a 15-minute or a half-hour press interview along the way. I would say that, between 7 a.m. and noon, I get a total of about 15 minutes at my desk."

Sometimes he skips his lunch, as briefing follows briefing, and there is often a conference call in late afternoon with Mr. Reagan in California. About 6 p.m., he has 15 minutes with his own staff, and then turns to the mail.

"We're getting maybe 400 peices a day, and most of it needs my signature," he said. "Then I try to return phone calls. I don't get to them all. I'm home by 10, or 11 or midnight. As for meals, I'm kind of in culinary limbo. Maybe I'll catch a McDonald's hamburge on the way home." Meese sometime also patronizes another fast-food franchise, but prefers its name not be mentioned. "Ray Kroc is a good friendof ours in California," he said.

Such a routine is not unknown in Washington, but an attending atmosphere of calm is somewhat rarer.

"Ulcers?" he asked, incredulous, laughing. "Oh, I don't think I've got ulcers, no. I've always been able to work without internalizing the pressures."

The phone rings. "Mr. Meese is leaving in 10 minutes. But maybe you can walk out with him.

Meese's image is further transmitted by his ease behind a microphone or television camera. As chief of staff he used to request personal anonymity, but those days are gone. Now it is Meese who goes on "Issues and Answers" and "Face the Nation," who gets top billing at morning press briefing and at whose desk the transition buck stops.

At a morning briefing a few weeks ago, a stentorian TV reporter asked, dramatically point-blank, whether it was true that "James Baker will be named White House chief of staff -- not you." Meese reacted not at all, except to say that such announcements would be forthcoming later. The next question was, "Where will the White House be when Ronald Reagan is not in Washington." To which he replied: "At the present time Ronald Reagan has not made any plans to move the White House out of Washington." When he wants to, Meese can get a laugh without reaching for it.

"We like to send the vituperative types in to see Meese," said one staffer.

"There's something about the way he talks, that atmosphere of control, that takes care of them right away."

"Somebody said to me, you don't flinch [at embarrassing questions]", he said. "I think after a lifetime of fielding the remarks of bright law students, I've just gotten used to it."

"It's a question of who you put on battleships and submarines," said Thomas, who has worked with Meese since 1968 and is now his chief assistant. "It's just out of character for Ed Meese to throw his hat on the floor. I've seen him upset only on very rare occasions. Perhaps if he had been intentionally misled. Of if a confidence had been betrayed. But he's just not a name-caller."

Meese's lifetime includes two years in military intelligence, and 21 years in the Army reserve. In addition to teaching, he has been the director of the Center for Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the University of San Diego law school, a post he will relinquish with regret, he says.

He remains fascinated by the problem of law enforcemet, and when at home in La Mesa often listens to a police radio as sort of background music for reading. "It keeps me up to date on police procedure," he said.

He finds the management of industry, with its regular routines, to be "restricting." But "in an Army, or a police department or a political campaign, you have continual change, which management must prepare for. That part holds great intrigue for me."

During the transition, the intrigue includes watching over the whole mechanism of changing governments, as the head of the table of organization that includes more than a dozen departments studying foreign policy, budget, congressional liason, and the thousands of jobs that need to be filled, from the cabinet on down.It is an organizer's dream and everybody else's nightmare.

"It may take Washington a little while to get used to Mr. Meese," said one colleague, whose wristwatch is always set 22 minutes fast to keep in on Meesian time. "There are probably a lot of people sitting around at midnight these days thinking -- 'Meese is watching me.' They're confused by the fact that he's always in control, always somehow keeping to his own personal schedule. It is kind of unusual, at that."

The phone rings but Carol Patrick ignores it. She sticks her head in and says: "Mr. Meese, if you don't leave right now you'll miss your plane."