When he first came to Washington, wearing his three degrees like a new suit, they said, "Get to know the secretaries--they're the ones who really run the city."

It sounded like another hick-baiting nostrum. Six months and scores of waiting rooms later, he knew better.

He learned: Could any midnight coven possess more arcane spells, more dark and potent powers? No hatpin in a hex doll ever anguished its victim like the hard jab of a perfect carmine nail on the hold button. No conjurer ever matched the dazzling flourish with which even the newest of them could summon up the truant document, the missing passport, the canceled check, all with a brisk ruffle of the Rolodex.

After four jobs and eight years, he had lost his buoyant spirit, 20 pounds and his faith in the merit system. But his reverence for secretaries was fresh as paint. He had found that there was no incantation more mighty than "I'll have him return the call," no defense more impregnable than "He's in conference at the moment," no opprobrium more galling to the supplicant than the shrug of one Qiana shoulder, no reputation so secure that it could not be annihilated by two secretaries over chicken salad and Tab.

And now, when novices arrive from the provinces asking advice, he always says: "Get to know the secretaries--they're the ones who really run the city."