Welcome to the world of the artful White House aide:

He maneuvers deep in the West Wing basement, one of Washington's special secrets. At 38, Richard Darman is assistant to the president, deputy to the chief of staff, a man who controls the paper flow and therefore, says a colleague, "the debate." Presidential counselor Edwin Meese simply calls him "the nerve center."

"He's the fourth most powerful person at the White House," decrees Michael Deaver, who's in the top three himself.

"He's not ambitious for money, power, publicity or status; he just has a natural feeling that he's superior to most people and deserves to be at a high policy level," says Jim Edwards, an old Harvard friend.

"He has a reputation as a young guy on the make," says another White House aide.

Whatever Darman is doing, he's now on the premier launching pad for notice in Washington. Dozens have done it before him, from Clark Clifford to Bryce Harlow, from Larry O'Brien to Joe Califano. Darman is equally canny, spending his first White House year establishing himself as a valuable player in this town's fastest league.

Evidence: In preparation for this article, he volunteered a six-page memo (excluding supplementary material) that detailed himself, his family, even the mementos on his walls. "It seems to me to be more efficient simply to dictate a few responses," he wrote. Under Section III, "General Attitude Toward Work/Leisure," he said: "I tend to deny the notion that work and pleasure should be distinguished." And under Section IV, "Tokens," he offered:

"On the theory that you may know something about someone by looking at the tokens that hang on the walls, you may note that my office walls include the following: "Five government commissions; two photos of myself with the president, with humorous comments by the president; family photos; . . . and a somewhat romantic French print juxtaposing the Arc de Triomphe, prayerful mourners, and a symbol of the quest for peace."

This memo might be viewed as amusing, compulsive or both, but its mere existence shows that Darman, as White House chief of staff James Baker points out, "knows how the game is played."

Darman, who was hired by Baker, was once an Elliot Richardson prote'ge' and a Saturday Night Massacre casualty. He gulps as many as seven cups of coffee per day, used to hire and transfer secretaries with alarming speed (11 in 1970), has condensed Ronald Reagan's economic program to 10 points on a handy index card and still wishes he had received an 800, not 790, on his high school SATs. The week of Reagan's most recent economic speech, he worked until midnight on Sunday, then returned at 6:30 a.m. Monday.

"I'm sort of an acquired taste," he says.

His wife, Kath, a PhD who is writing a book on British satirist Evelyn Waugh, thinks that "the comic perspective on public affairs is certainly a very valid one." Her husband, she sighs, "is happier than I've seen him in a long time. I think he feels he's where the real action is."

He is. Darman decides what the president reads, helps calculate how AWACS might fly on the Hill and, in a scheme he devised last summer against White House tax bill opponent Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), figures how to "squeeze Rosty." Most recently, in preparation for the Cancun summit opening tomorrow, Meese says, Darman "introduced a document which became the primary statement of our strategy."

Ever the artful aide.

Dick Darman is aggressive, but is perfectly capable of charm. He treats women with the polite deference taught by his Boston upbringing, although he spent, by his own account, a rollicking youth. ("He had a little Porsche, he drove around and he had a lot of fun," recalls Edwards of Darman's business school days. "Dick is a prodigy who matured in his thirties instead of his teens," says another friend.)

Darman's deep-set eyes and strong nose form a boyish face, grown full of late. He used to be trim, a collegiate jock who once rode his bike all over the Italian Riviera and Morocco. Government has broadened him.

His hobby, he says, is "thinking." He also paints reproductions of Picassos, although "it's somewhat stretching a bit to call that a hobby, since I did it once in 1967 and again in '71. So if there's a pattern there, I engage in it every four years."

He has a fast wit, documented by the irreverent notes he passes at White House staff meetings. Once when Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and others were warning of the dire consequences of the slightest defense cut ("The rhetoric was a little hyped," recalls an unsympathetic listener), Darman slipped a note to this colleague that read: "There goes western civilization for the third time in the last hour."

He does excellent imitations of political celebrities and United States presidents. "Only former presidents," he quickly points out.

At the rare social event he decides to endure, Darman is so awkward that his tie appears to be strangling him. "I get more nervous if there aren't things to do," he says in an interview. "Here we are, sitting around, not doing a lot." Even at a casual lunch, he'll twist his coffee spoon into an aluminum spiral. It's only in a relaxed, one-on-one or one-on-two conversation that Darman becomes philosophical and entertaining, a fine and mischievous raconteur.

On the record, he's another story.

Q: "How much did you have to do with the Ottawa summit?"

A: "I have nothing to say on Ottawa except -- what did you hear?"

One thing seen was a glimpse of influence on his office wall. There's a picture of him at the Ottawa summit surrounded by presidential counselor Edwin Meese, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan and Cabinet secretary Craig Fuller. Darman is sitting at a small table, writing out "talking points" for the president. They were used immediately afterward in Reagan's talk with French President Franc,ois Mitterrand.

"Why wasn't someone from the National Security Council staff doing that?" asks one critical White House insider.

"He's been all over the lot," complains another.

Darman's primary lot -- and love -- is paper. With Craig Fuller, assistant to the president for Cabinet affairs -- the other "nerve center," in Meese's assessment -- Darman's days are spent pulling in paper and funneling it out. "He becomes the quality control," says White House aide Rich Williamson. "I'll get a dozen documents a day that have been routed to me by Darman -- with three days to get them in. Fuller and Darman are really the key switchers."

His day begins at 7 a.m. He condenses the domestic and overnight security papers for the president's morning reading, and by 8 is at the senior staff meeting. From there, the day careens from Cabinet meetings to Capitol Hill meetings to Oval Office meetings to phone call to crisis. In the late afternoons, he sets the agenda for the all-important legislative strategy group. He gets home by 8, sometimes 9.

Darman is in on every significant decision, but his influence is subtle. He doesn't conduct the meetings, but works the edges; timing is almost everything. "An example of the Dick Darman technique," says outgoing White House aide and National Endowment for the Arts chairman-designate Frank Hodsoll, "is sort of: 'You may well be right, but let me just suggest a few technical details.' And they'll change the whole course of events on a particular issue."

As Treasury Secretary Donald Regan says: "He's making the snowballs, and somebody else is throwing them."

Darman's paper-pushing skill reaches into some peculiar areas. During an interview with him it's difficult to tell who's taking more notes. As he talks, he writes his own points on the apple-green index cards he carries in a plastic container in his left breast pocket. (Occasionally he'll use blue or tan cards, but never an assortment. He prefers not to mix.)

At one point, he was concerned that he'd implied he is less conservative than most Reagan Republicans. So, he came to a subsequent interview with the word "liberal" written among the points on his note card, asking that the subject be clarified. It was established that Darman is not liberal. He took his black felt-tip pen and passed it above the word "liberal" once, twice, but he couldn't cross it off. He stopped.

"Are you sure you don't think I'm a liberal?" he asked.

Yes, he was told.

He tried crossing off the word, but stopped again.

"You're sure?"

Darman's method is clearest on paper. Consider this agenda he prepared for a Sept. 21 AWACS legislative strategy meeting in Baker's office:

1. What's our latest vote count?

2. Who are our swing targets?

3. What are the specific next steps for each? w/ what prospects?

4. Do we have sweetener(s) in our pocket(s) -- what? for use when/ how?

5. What are the various fall-back options, and under what circumstances would they be triggered?

6. In light of the above, does our strategy need revision?

And here's an excerpt from an agenda Darman prepared before last summer's tax bill fight with Rostenkowski.

Question: Why not give Rosty a deadline -- to come up with a specific proposal ("best and final") by (c.o.b. Wednesday)?

-- If Rosty's proposal is acceptable, we accept.

-- If not, we go with CDF the Congressional Democratic Forum -- and Rosty could follow later, if he so chooses (!)

Says budget director David Stockman, in admiration of his friend: "Darman's one of the best operators going."

Hidden Truth

Under Section II, "Home," Darman wrote in his memo:

"Unpretentious, New England-style brick and clapboard house; . . . in Virginia 12 minutes from the White House; isolated at the end of a half mile bumpy and windy private road; with tennis court; on five and a half acres; with extensive frontage on the Potomac; on a steep hillside overlooking Little Falls and an undeveloped river island; with magnificent views up river, down river, and across to Northwest Washington."

Inside is the former Kath Emmett, Darman's wife of 14 years and a legend of Radcliffe College. She was widely regarded as one of the most beautiful women on campus. In 1963, Life magazine put her on its cover under the headline, "New Women and Radcliffe."

Today she is thin, almost frail, with blond hair and a special serenity. Hers is a casual brilliance that pops up in conversation and sudden insight. She has two children who compete with her book on Waugh. She writes at home, in a study overlooking the river.

"Waugh recognizes what most of us instinctively sense," she says, "which is, sometimes politics seems more truthfully treated as farce or as fantasy or as nonsense . . . it's almost as if that is the hidden truth that no one dares talk about.

"I hated Washington until Watergate," she continues, "but then I began to take a day-by-day interest in the soap opera." She stops. "And then you can say," she instructs, "She added quickly, 'Of course, I was worried about the moral issues too.' "

It is 8 p.m. on a Friday. Her husband is home from work early, fussing with lights, wine glasses, a corkscrew. Willy Darman, 5, is making noise on the floor. Jonathan, 8 months, drools on his mother. She is the only one of the family who is calm. The room is a cross of airy elegance and old-line WASP: a hardwood floor and oriental rug, two Chippendale couches, two Renoirs, one Millet. Much of it comes from both of their inheritances. Darman gathers up the children, then arranges them around him on one of the Chippendales. All three squirm.

"I think he feels uncomfortable if he gets too unwound," his wife has said earlier by phone. "There's a sense that he won't coil back up again . . . but there really is sort of a nice, tender side to him that he sometimes chooses not to show. It's partly a kind of defensiveness."

"You hardly ever see him brooding," says Graham Allison, the dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where Darman once taught. "And he has a twinkle in his eye. But he's also more troubled than most people . . . there's a disappointment when he fails to achieve the standards to which he's been driven."

He and Kath married in 1967. "It was a crazy thing to do," laughs Kath Darman. "We barely knew each other. We've just been very lucky. There was some horrendous settling-down and wonderfully stormy hashing-out of the issues. We still have these blowups, but they're fairly healthy, don't you think?"

Kath Darman won't say for whom she voted in the last election. Her thoughts on the president?

"I think Reagan seems like a nice man," she says.

And his policies?

"I can't say anything about that," she replies.

Neither Darman goes out much, other than to an occasional White House state dinner, for a weekend sail or an evening with friends. Kath Darman is as busy in her own way as her husband is.

"Last winter, I was in this circular flow of diapers and nursing," she says, "and I did sort of feel tinges of resentment that he was rushing off to this neat job. But I also felt sort of sorry for him. I think he does adore his children, and I think there's been kind of a conflict in how he deals with his job. He's just not been able to be as much a part of the house as I think he would like to be."

If there are any more tensions than that between the striving political aide and his wife, Kath Darman is not about to address them. "He likes it," she says of his job. "That's the first thing. And I like Evelyn Waugh, after all. I don't know. I mean it just doesn't seem . . ." She falters. "But basically, the thing is . . . he is so clearly happy doing it." She stops. "It's a complicated question," she sighs.

The 'Blips' of Life

"My tendency to work somewhat more than the conventional 40 hours a week is not new, nor peculiar to my involvement in government," Darman wrote on page 4 of his memo. ". . . Even when I was a teenager I showed this curious tendency. My father and I thought it would be good if I would work one summer in a mill in western Massachusetts. I signed on for an 8-hour shift . . . I got a little bored sitting around in the little old mill town . . . so I ended up working two consecutive 8-hour shifts, with ten minute breaks for food from vending machines. In the evening I returned, somewhat tired, to my room in a guest house on the town common. Somewhat ironically, the guest house was named Blythe House. When I would get to my room around 11 p.m., I would try to educate myself about great 19th century literature. But I tended consistently to fall asleep."

Darman grew up in Wellesley Hills, Mass., the son of an industrialist who owned textile mills and marketed oil and gas in New England. "Since we were big fish in small ponds," he says, "success looked like something that ought to be relatively complete. And, ah, the most important thing of all -- my grandfather and father were both pretty extreme perfectionists."

Darman had a prep-school career that is standard for the White House staffer: student council vice president, editor of the literary journal, chairman of the prom, captain of the football, wrestling and lacrosse teams. After Harvard College and Harvard Business School, he began a climb through five Cabinet departments. First was HEW, where he caught the eye of then-secretary Richardson. He became a member of "Richardson's Mafia," following him as aide to Defense, Justice, through the Saturday Night Massacre, then later on to Commerce (where Baker noticed him) and then, briefly, through the Law of the Sea negotiations. He soon joined a Washington consulting firm where he did corporate planning, also teaching part time at Harvard's Kennedy School.

It wasn't the best of times. "I think he was going through this thing when he was 37," says a friend, "when you ask, 'What am I going to do when I grow up?' I think in a sense he was a workaholic without anything to apply it to."

The Saturday Night Massacre was Darman's first acquaintance with political catastrophe. "A blip," he says of it. "All things in life have been blips," he says blithely. "I think he feels that if he doesn't expose himself," his wife says later, "he won't be hurt."

He is equally skittish about his political views, but he decides to talk about them over dinner, a steak, his favorite food. He dictates the thoughts of Chairman Darman, with accompanying punctuation.

"There's a fair amount of evidence to suggest," he says in mock-serious tones, "that market mechanisms are generally preferable to nonmarket mechanisms, comma, and that decentralized structures are preferable to centrally managed structures -- dash, dash -- with some important exceptions. Period. Now the next point, as you begin to examine the pattern of someone's judgment about the merits of one approach or another to problem-solving, comma, you will tend to sketch out a pattern that conforms more with one political party than another. Period." He giggles.

"Okay. In my case the pattern conforms more with what many people associate with Republicanism. Period. And, as it happens, I am a registered Republican. But the starting point for me is never party." He pauses. "Period." Then shrugs. "That will get me in trouble, but it's true."

So is he apolitical?

"Okay, we can ditch all that. You say, 'Are you apolitical?' and I'll say, 'Okay, I think so.' "

Reading the Fine Print

Asked about the extent of his power, Darman at first responds with his usual caution. Then he decides to hand-deliver another memo.

Under the heading, "Power," he wrote:

"On the question of how much, I could give two answers: 'Not much,' or 'It's hard to tell.' . . . You remember the rock-and-roll song 'Along Came Jones?' In it slow-walkin', slow-talkin' Jones kept coming along to change the course of events just as the heroine was about to get the buzz saw, or about to be run over by a locomotive. That's the type of power some people seem to suppose that others must have with respect to public affairs. It's rarely so simple."

"Dick is the guy, more than anybody else, who flagged the fact that we were going to have to come up with an additional round of cuts to handle the deficit problem," says James Baker. "That was in February."

"He'll always raise the downside," says Stockman. " 'If we lose, where does it leave us?' All the way through the tax bill, he was the guy who said, 'Here are the seven questions you better answer, or you won't get to the next stage.' "

"He's one of the most important influences on decision-making at the White House," says David Gergen, the White House press spokesman who recognizes another maneuverer when he watches one. Darman and Gergen are not close, and eye each other with care.

Darman is almost always careful -- and indirect. Once, for example, he spotted a politically troublesome phrase in an important presidential economic speech. Rather than directly suggesting it be deleted, Darman consulted both Baker and Meese, who called the president. The phrase came out.

Other tasks come right up to the president. On Sept. 30, the deadline for the $1.079 trillion debt-ceiling bill to be signed, Darman got it from the Hill at 7 p.m. He checked through it, wrote a short note to the president, then hurried over to the residence so Reagan could sign it before midnight. He caught him between dinner and a movie.

On another day, the president had just signed some bills and was leaving the Oval Office in a rush. He walked out the door and told Helene von Damm, his assistant: "Make sure that Dick reads the fine print."

By the end of each day, Darman also completes what he considers the routine task of selecting the president's evening reading. It is sent to Reagan by 7:30 p.m. so he can review it in the residence. "Sometimes it's as much as a couple hundred pages, sometimes it's as little as 20 pages of briefing on events for the next day," Darman says. "It depends on what's going on. It ranges from intelligence reports to policy decision documents . . . He also gets a little morning heap."

The routine extends to Cabinet meetings. One reportedly appeared less than fascinating to him. On July 10, both Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and national security adviser Richard Allen were briefing the president an hour before his lunch with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. At the end of the Cabinet table were Darman and Fuller. During Allen's presentation, according to one participant who is hostile to Darman, the two started giggling and passing notes. When Haig briefed, they listened.

"I don't believe they're being accurate," responds Darman. "If I were inclined to laugh at Dick, which is not the case, I wouldn't do it. It's foolish. Dick and I get along extremely well."

"My gut feeling is that he's after Allen's job," speculates one White House official suspicious of Darman. Darman denies wanting the adviser's job, and gives no hint about his future plans. Some of his friends guess that someday he'd like to be secretary of state.

"That's preposterous," he says. "I don't plan in greater than five-year increments. And the last time I told someone what I wanted to be in life was when I was 15 years old. The person I told has since died."

A Final Memo

After the first few interviews, Darman provided a postscript. In memo form.

"It occurred to me," he wrote, "that we both failed to deal with one important subject:

Dog (?)

-- Answer: "Yes" -- named "Silly,"* golden retriever, age 8.

*Note: "Silly's" registered name is Crest's Guardian Scylla. With his half-sister, Crest's Guardian Charybdis, nicknamed "Chary," he was once one of a pair -- Scylla and Charybdis, "Silly" and "Chary." Chary died -- lost in the river at a young age. That the chary might die while the silly live is a matter of some independent interest, but probably not in the context you have in mind."