BY TUESDAY night, some 30 hours after Ronald Reagan had been the target of a would-be assassin, Nancy Reagan was reading her messages for the first time back at the White House. One in particular held special meaning. f

"The President was not the only one," it said. "You done good, too. [signed] Lyn."

Typical of Lyn Nofziger to do that. Typical, too, of Nofziger, for 15 years one of Ronald Reagan's closest advisers -- though not always Nancy Reagan's favorite -- to turn mounting chaos into, at the very least, controlled chaos.

Witness Nofziger at George Washington University Hospital, peering over his half-glasses and looking more the authoritative, kindly academician than the shrewd, combative ex-newsman, announcing for the first time that the president had been shot.

Witness, too, this same Nofziger, pacing about calmly as he took reporters' questions, a scene in sharp contrast to the unsettling televised view the public had from the White House of a tense, nervous Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.

For anybody knowing him, it was vintage Nofziger diffusing a potentially hysterical situation with a degree of credibility in a day rampant with confusing and conflicting reports. The Nofziger touch, relaying to reporters those early nuggets of presidential humor, seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. Hearing that Ronald Reagan was strong enough to joke had been one of the most encouraging early signs Nofziger could bring to an anxiously waiting world.

"He's a tough, hard-nosed guy who believes in putting out accurate information, not half-truths," says Joe Holmes, White House director of radio and television services, the first to find Nofziger in his EOB office and tell him that somebody had tried to kill Reagan. "What did he do when he heard it? Well, he put on his shoes and took charge."

"No great mystery," says Nofziger, the Reagan administration's political conscience, of how he became the Reagan spokesman at the hospital. He had volunteered to help, and White House Chief of Staff James Baker and presidential counselor Edwin Meese decided he could best be used at the hospital.

One of the first things Nofziger did, along with White House deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver and White House physician Dr. Daniel Ruge, was to find Dr. Dennis S. O'Leary to act as medical spokesman. That was what Nofziger calls "a happy coincidence" because what was needed was someone "a little removed" from the surgery performed on Reagan, someone who could be objective. O'Leary came with high recommendations. "O'Leary was stupendous."

Inside the White House where there are usually some vacancies in the Nofziger fan club, there is general agreement that Nofziger, too, was first-rate. And there is, of all things, fan mail.

"Please allow me, your average TV news watcher, to offer you many thanks for the good job you've been doing," wrote Susan Collins, a stranger in East Riverdale, Md.

"It was your style at your press briefing, that moment of humor that America needed. We are grateful to you," scrawled Wendell Handy, a friend living in Orange, Calif.

In a button down administration, the rumpled, bare-knuckled Nofziger is known as a truculent infighter who doesn't always bother with the Marquis of Queensbury rules.

That, as much as anything, may explain why he reportedly wasn't offered the job of White House press secretary after Reagan won the election, contrary to what many in the press had predicted.

Nofziger denies a recent Wall Street Journal report that he was unhappy at being passed over as interim White House press secretary while James Brady recovers from his gunshot wound.

"You notice they didn't quote anybody," he says. "I'm very happy where I am."

Where he is is a mouthful title: assistant to the president for political counsel, with specific responsibilities for coordination with the Republican National Committee and the House and Senate congressional campaign committees. What it means is that Nofziger, sometimes seen as being more conservative than Reagan, is watching out for the fiercely conservative end of the party. More specifically, he is working on appointments for the administration from a political standpoint.

"I certainly don't like the idea of keeping on somebody who worked for the Carter administration or his campaign. I just don't think that's how you win future elections," says Nofziger.

And while Nofziger says it's okay for Reagan and his cabinet not to make decisions based on politics -- "what's good for the country should clearly come first" -- he also thinks it is perfectly proper to live up to campaign promises.

Franklyn Curran Nofziger, 56, a name with considerable style for one who seems anxious to avoid the suggestion of any, has taken charge of Ronald Reagan's public persona before. Brusquely, noisily and often unpopularly, he was known to bulldoze his way through reporters crowding around Candidate Reagan, growling "We ain't got a press conference." Or, "no questions, no questions, that was the deal fellas," when there had been no such "deal" at all.

Anybody familiar with the Nofziger technique recognized it as the rescue operation of an ex-newsman who knew a "good" story when he smelled it and suspected his olfactory glands weren't unique.

"Press conferences are just one of the many tools in a campaign," he told a reporter last fall as Reagan blunders on such things as Jimmy Carter launching his campaign in "Ku Klux Klan country" began hitting the headlines.

"Just because someone shouts a question at you doesn't mean you have to answer it," said Nofziger.

It had been Edwin Meese's idea to bring Nofziger out of exile and back into the Reagan fold as chief campaign spokesman in time for the GOP convention in Detroit. Early in the primaries Reagan had fired the pragmatic John P. Sears III as his campaign director in February 1980, cleaning up a messy internal power struggle that found Nofziger quitting in a dispute with Sears. Three months later longtime aide Deaver abruptly walked out.

"Sears was systematically trying to get rid of anybody historically close to Reagan," says Stuart Spencer, a campaign consultant who's known Nofziger since Reagan's 1966 California gubernatorial race.

Sears, a Washington attorney who wanted Reagan to be more of a moderate conservative, says it's a matter of record that Nofziger quit when he was offered something different -- "a political assignment" -- to do. "I didn't have anything to do with that," says Sears of Nofziger's exit. "Deaver did."

However, it was Deaver, unavailable for comment, who reportedly helped bring Nofziger back into fold.

It was also a matter of record that Nofziger, the conservative, adamantly had opposed Sears' efforts to redefine Reagan into a middle-of-the-road Republican.

"You can talk all you want to about repackaging Ronald Reagan," Nofziger said, sitting it out in California, "but when he starts the campaign, it will be Reagan saying the things Reagan wants to say."

He proved to be prophetic, though at first he sounded simply petulant. Even disloyal. His public statements about Reagan being a "slow learner" managed by Sears earned him no points and may have done him permanent damage. Still, once Sears & Co. were out, and Meese found he couldn't be press secretary and chief of staff, too, he prevailed upon Nofziger to let bygones be bygones and help win one for the Gipper.

"Reagan hadn't had a whole lot of luck in attracting good press secretaries.

His association with Lyn was based on need," says a friend. "He always came back to Lyn because he combined the working experience of a journalist, a knowledge of politics and the same philosophical beliefs."

Nofziger came back but former associates say something had gone out of him. Despite the fact that it was leading up to the moment he had for 15 years been convinced was coming, the campaign was hardly the high point in Nofziger's long career as Reagan loyalist.

There always had been a lot of intramural jealousies among the Reagan staff, but the closer everybody got to the gold ring, the more intense the jockeying became.

"After being bloodied up through the years of behind-the-scenes feuds, you begin to think there are better ways to earn a living," says a friend, of what some now interpret as Nofziger's disenchantment with campaign bureaucracy.

Some reporters found him a gruff pleasure to deal with and others felt he grew irascible and overly protective of the candidate as the autumn wore on. They also found him irreverent. When some reporters nailed him in print with a few of his more creative lines he saw them as betrayers. "Now I'm going to start another rumor," he said of an erroneous report that Reagan has suffered a heart attack last September. "Write this down. Jimmy Carter has the clap."

"Most of those guys I consider to be friends. Once in a while there are harsh words, but if I'm wrong I apologize. If I'm not, I don't worry about it," he says.

He lashed out at a British journalist on election night who had printed something Nofziger claimed was off-the-record.

"I said, 'I don't have anything further to say to you,'" he says, remembering the incident. "What would you have me do, pretend they're my friends? Civilization being the way it is, you can't take violent action, but you don't have to associate with them."

Says Stu Spencer: "Lynn doesn't forget his friends -- or his enemies either."

"He does tend to polarize people, not always on classic political grounds, because he's not that simplistic, but there doesn't seem to be any gray in his color wheel," says a former associate in California.

Now let me make one thing perfectly clear, even at San Jose State College Nofziger was always older than I. Not thinner, maybe, or wiser, but certainly older. It's a relief to see that some things never change. His sense of humor, for instance. It still impales, as it did the other day, when quite offhandedly he told me that Mike Deaver was also a San Jose Stater (class of '58).

"He hasn't matured like we have," Norfziger added, laughing wickedly.

Actually, that wicked laugh unleashed a whole album of SJS memories from those long-ago days of the late 1940s when we wanted to be reporters more than anything else in the world: the hastily erected post-war prefab, where we put out the tabloid-sized college newspaper, The Spartan Daily; Dirty Dave's, where we argued about the front page every morning over coffee; the journalism society we called the "30" Club, where we hung in effigy Daily editors like Nofziger.

Some of us were freckle-faced and politically uncomplicated, straight out of high school where our closest brush with World War II had been finding enough gasoline ration stamps to get to Saturday night's barn dance. The Norfzigers of that era brought us face-to-face with the grown-up world veterans on the GI bill. e

San Jose State, with a record 8,000-student enrollment, was bursting at its mission-style stucco seams. Competition was stiff. A few of managed to survive, and by the time I met Norfziger he was already a powerful journalistic personality.

He'd spent three years in the Army, first in England and later at the front in France, and was typical of the purposeful ex-GI intent on getting someplace.

You wouldn't have known it by his interest in clothes, which he considered utilitarian; shirt-front buttons were hard-pressed then, too, to do the job expected of them. He had more hair and less paunch, but otherwise, what you see today is what we saw then: a guy you either loved or hated, but no matter how hard you tried, couldn't for the life of you ignore.

He and Bonnie were already married when I first got to know them around 1949. She was a former WAC who had decided against getting a bachelor's degree and went to work for the telephone company so Lyn could go to school. He'd done a semester at the University of California at Los Angeles but didn't like it for two reasons: There was no journalism school and he was required to take a foreign language.

"Hell," he says to this day, "If people want to talk to me they can speak English."

With English, he outdid himself, most notably with puns. Nobody could ever touch him, though there were some who always tried. Once, when a bad back put a Daily editor named Kreidt temporarily out of commission, a notice appeared on the bulletin board where Nofziger had last been seen loitering.

"Our editor has lumbago," it read. "Please bring some liniment for Kreidt sake."

Nofziger says his family "just groaned" as he was growing up. "My mother spent years trying to ignore my puns feeling that maybe I'd stop."

He was bright, hard-working, quick-witted and a political conservative who even then wouldn't back off from a row if it challenged his opinions. He got into a hassle with the professors once over editorials he wrote about how many knocked down students' grades for not attending class. He was no stranger to squabbles with instructors and back at Canoga Park High School he worked on the school paper for two years until he got into a fight with the journalism teacher.

"She was a liberal Democrat, that's right, I kid you not," he says, still able to register shock at such a thing. "Teachers in those days were the old New Deal supporters who were really trying to shove that stuff down your throat. We had a lot of differences of opinion and finally it seemed best for me not to take any more classes from her."

There never was any doubt in most of our minds that San Jose State was a way station on Nofziger's climb to the big story.

San Jose did its best to help. The Spartan Daily was a laboratory course and three terms of working on it were required for graduation. Also, in the senior year, journalism majors were required to go off campus one term and work full-time as cub reporters on small papers.

Nofziger did his internship at the Glendale News Press, which hired him after graduation. He spent eight years shuttling between it and the Burbank Review, covering police, fire, working on the copy desk, rising to managing editor.

The only thing I liked about San Jose State was that they never taught me anything I couldn't use. They prepared me to go into a profession," Nofziger says.

That's how Nofziger got into his other "profession," politics. By 1964, working in the Washington bureau of Copley Newspapers, we was covering the presidential campaign of Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. In the entourage was a television adviser named J. Neil Reagan.

"We became very good friends -- we're still very good friends," says Nofziger. "I think, though he's never admitted it, that they were looking for a press secretary for Neil's younger brother Ronald back in 1965 and that he recommended they talk to me."

It was Stu Spencer of the Spencer-Roberts political consulting firm who offered him the job.

"The chemistry between him and Reagan was good, they shared basically the same philosophy on life and there was a great loyalty demonstrated by Lyn," says Spencer.

"I got into the damn thing and realized that Ronald Reagan is maybe the best candidate I've ever seen, I mean in terms of appealing to people, in terms of electability," Nofziger says.

It didn't take long for him to see that it was "a lead-pipe cinch that this guy was going to be elected governor. I mean it was very clear to me early on that he was really going to have a problem NOT to be elected. I even thought that he was going to be elected president in 1968, and still think he could have been if he'd put his mind to it."

Reagan asked Nofziger to stay on after winning the California statehouse.

"I said, 'Well, Reagan's going to be president and I want to be a part of it so I'm going to stay.' I didn't know it would take this long," he says, laughing uproariously.

Nofziger, like almost everybody else around Reagan, had no expericene in government. But as a reporter who had covered local, state and national governments, his instincts and his sense of public relations were good, and before long he was among the new governor's more vocal advisers.

"We were not only amateurs," Nofziger once said, "we were novice amateurs."

He claims that he never did particularly enjoy working for government, either in Reagan's Sacramento for 21 months or later in Richard Nixon's White House for 19 months. "After a while I get bored, you know, government being what it is."

In Sacramento, the Nofziger style of the fast lip and open collar became quickly evident. Once as an out-of-town group arrived in Reagan's office to present a life-size bust to the governor, Nofziger ambled in, drawling:

"Well, as I live and breathe, it's the spitting image of George Gipp."

Nofziger, with his look of an unmade bed, wasn't exactly the kind of decor the governor's wife Nancy expected.

"I didn't hire out because I was Beau Brummel," Nofziger said later, "and it never appeared to bother the governor. I always figured, what the heck, with me standing next to him he looks even better."

By 1967, "there is no question that we had a poblem," says Nofziger of stories that still persist about his and Nancy Reagan's relationship. "She thought I'd said some things that were hurtful to the governor. She thought I'd been talking when I should have been listening."

Today, people close to Nancy Reagan say she has a "great regard" for his opinion as well as great affection.

"She's crazy about Lyn now," says Nancy Reynolds, a vice president of the Bendix Corp. whom Nofziger hired away from KPIX-TV in 1967 to be his assistant press secretary in Sacramento.

On one wall in the old Richard Nixon EOB hideaway where Nofziger now runs his political command post, there is a mirror with a picture of Queen Victoria and letters in gilt that read "Bombay Dry Gin." It is the George Will Memorial Bombay Gin Mirror, named for its donor who sent it over shortly after the birth of his daughter, Victoria, now five months old, knowing Nofzinger's fondness for Bombay Gin.

"Another sign of good taste in the White House," says Will, who calls Nofziger "Reagan's Sancho Panza" and pays him no small credit in putting Reagan in the White House.

From Richard Nixon, whose 1972 Californa campaign Nofziger ran, there is a letter framed among other mementos. It jocularly calls Nofziger "my favorite liberal."

In the San Francisco Bay area his reputation as a Ronald Reagan true-believer has earned him a chapter named in his honor by the ultraconservative California Republican Assembly.

"Listen, dear, I am a Republican," says Nofziger, White House keeper of the Grand Old Party. "How does that saying go? 'By their natural nature, Republicans are honorable and decent people who have the interest of their country at heart. Democrats by their natural nature are thieves and drunks and so forth.'"

Just so he wouldn't forget it, he had a dozen or so copies of the saying made up and slipped into drawers so he could find one when he wanted it.

He didn't come here to be a "personnel director," he says, but it's turned out that way because Nofziger, probably better than anyone else and certainly with an elephantine memory about such matters, knows who labored loyally in the Reagan vineyard and who didn't.

"Goddamn near" every potential appointee, schedule C and higher, is run past Nofziger, who claims he is not looking at competence unless he runs into somebody he knows to be incompetent.

"I know everybody can't work in a campaign or give money to it, but I also look to see if a guy is a Republican, what his record is as a Republican, whether he's been an anti-Reagan Republican," he says. "Some are vociferously and virulently anti-Reagan and, damn, I don't want to hire those people."

Democrats aren't ruled out if they were Democrats for Reagan because "there aren't enough Republicans to elect a president of the United States." "

He works closely with Pendleton James, chief of presidential pesonnel. And his conference style is to pick up the phone, announce to some uncertain secretary on the other end of the line: "This is Lyn Nofziger and I need Pen James and I know he's with the Secretary of . . .' -- but that's what it's all about."

Also what it's all about is keeping tabs on GOP special interests because "good politics is living up to the commitments and making certain you're following the philosophy you've laid out."

Nofziger says he'll listen to the needs, desires, proposals of Republicans and Reagan supporters so they can be part of the process.

As for Reagan being president of all the people, well "Elizabeth Dole (assistant to the president for public liaison) gets to listen to all the rest of them."

Nofziger claims you can't separate politics from government because if you did you'd have a dictatorship, but it doesn't mean he's going to wave the red flag and say "hey, the best political move for you to make is to do such and such."

He didn't wave it during the recent flap over crisis management, when Secretary of State Haig reportedly was about to resign. "I don't think that's a political question," he insists. "I don't think the resignation of any Cabinet officer will cause Reagan to lose any lousy votes."

After the election, Nofziger told everybody he was going back to California, do some writing and take it easy. Then when Jim Baker offered him the job he changed his mind, he says, because Bonnie told him he'd be unhappy sitting out there and also because "there were people beating me on the head to stay."

But Stu Spencer says there was still another reason: " all of a sudden he'd gotten to the big banana and he wasn't going to be a part of it."

Baker came up with the job when conservatives were starting to yell that there weren't enough of their kind coming to Washington to watch over their interests.

"Lyn has a pretty solid constituency among the conservative wing of the party," says one longtime Nofziger observer.

"I will let Mr. Meese and Mr. Baker and Mr. Deaver and all those good guys worry about Reagan being president," says Nofziger. "They like government, they want to run the government, they can run the government. I'm much more interested in making sure that we go on running it. So I'll worry about him being titular head of the Republican Party."

Nofziger decided on Dec. 8, 1980, to grow a beard. He hadn't worn one since World War II in France. One night somebody yelled "gas" because he thought he smelled it. There were no technological devices to warn anyone so the only way to signal each other was to relay the word down the line.

"I could hear the call coming my way," Nofziger remembers, "and I still had my gas mask though most had thrown theirs away. But I couldn't get mine tight because of my damn beard. It must have been a very traumatic experience."

As he was driving cross-country that December day, he was thinking about that and how he later threw his gas mask away because, of course, there hadn't been any gas in World War II. And he was thinking about the job Jim Baker had offered him as assistant to the president for political counsel. The more Nofziger thought about it, "the more I got to thinking 'what you really need to do is wear the beard all the time you're back there and that's supposed to remind you that you're not supposed to stay forever.' And the day I resign I'll have a big shaving party."