KENNETH ADELMAN has decorated the walls of his office with originals of the cartoons that lambasted him during his three-month confirmation ordeal. "It's a record of what happened over the last few months . . . It's not a flattering record, but it's funny," says the new director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

Adelman has also hung African masks on the walls--he has written about African art--and the masks make his secretary cringe good-naturedly. "During my confirmation process no one ever asked me about the art of the Yaka," he deadpans in an interview.

Of course, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked him about everything else, it seemed--including nuclear war. One of Adelman's answers at his first hearing catapulted him into prime-time news and made him the most controversial man of the hour:

Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.): My question to you is, do you think once we go nuclear, if we go nuclear . . . do you believe that that war can be limited, or do you think both sides would then use their total arsenals?

Adelman: Senator Pell, I just have no thoughts in that area, and I will tell you why. I think it would be such a time of extreme human stress and extreme conditions that I think any predictions on what leaders around the world would do in that kind of situation would just not be accurate or not be based on anything I know.

Sen. Pell: But in your own view, do you have an opinion? . . .

Adelman: Senator, really that is an area that I have not gone into. It is an area of, I might say, of just speculation, of what men would do in those kinds of conditions, and I don't have a strong opinion . . .

"That," Adelman concedes now that the uproar has died down, "was ineloquently phrased."

Ken Adelman, cocky and quick-tongued, has never been one to worry too much about such things.

Tact and diplomacy are not the virtues of the man who held the second-ranking position at the United Nations--a fact that was glaringly apparent to some who encountered him there.

"Ambassador Adelman is a veritable study of hubris," wrote Homer A. Jack, secretary general of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, a nongovernmental observer at the U.N., in a prepared statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Some who have clashed with him have come away appalled and exasperated. When Tom Korologos, a veteran GOP lobbyist and expert in congressional relations who was called in by administration officials to coach Adelman, went around to talk to staffers of the Foreign Relations Committee, he heard negative comments. "They dumped on him," said Korologos.

With his hawkish views, limited background on arms control issues and past criticism of SALT, Adelman earned the distinction of being only the 14th nominee since 1925 to receive a negative recommendation from a Senate committee. His answers were "too general" and he seemed more concerned about the expansion of the defense budget than arms control, concluded the committee majority's report. And, the report said, "he did not display the informed, coherent, professional approach to these highly complex questions that the nation needs in the Director of ACDA."

It took Adelman three Senate hearings and assistance from a cadre of administration officials to finally win confirmation in the Senate in April by 57 votes to 42.

Virtually overnight Adelman became a symbol of what critics say is wrong with Reagan's arms control policy.

Certainly, he suffered some from being a convenient target for senators' criticism of Reagan's policy. But it was more than that.

Ken Adelman was a controversy waiting to happen.

According to his friends and even some of his detractors, he is smart and funny, gregarious and informal, a delight to have at a party or a think tank.

At 36, Adelman has a PhD in government from Georgetown University and a bachelor's degree in philosophy and religion from Grinnell College in Iowa. Something of an adventurer, he followed his wife, Carol, a former career foreign service officer, on assignment to Zaire, and wrote his PhD thesis on African religion and its influence on politics there. He served as a translator (he speaks fluent French) for Muhammad Ali during the fighter's stay in Zaire for the 1974 Ali-George Foreman fight, in which Ali took the title from Foreman.

Adelman's heroes are explorers like Sir Richard Burton. On the 100th anniversary of Stanley's voyage on the Zaire River, Adelman went on a commemorative expedition of the often-treacherous river, preparing himself by reading Stanley's memoirs. Along the route he and his fellow travelers encountered a hippopotamus who bit a chunk out of their raft and sent its passengers flying into the river waters.

Adelman works as hard as he plays and often curls up at night with copies of Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, journals, biographies and books on foreign affairs. "I tease him," says his wife. "I tell him his hobby is his work."

But his reading list is not without digressions. He has read all the Sherlock Holmes stories, and he started a Sherlock Holmes club in Washington when he was a graduate student.

He is direct, everyone will tell you. But he can also be abrasive and irreverent. His friendliness functions as a safety net for his abrasiveness.

"I think he has a sort of boyish charm," says Susan Johnson, a political officer for the U.S. mission at the U.N. "I think when people get to know him, they tend to forgive something he said that may have put them off in the beginning."

But put them off he does, especially at the U.N., where he served as deputy permanent representative of the United States. Diana Reynolds, a graduate student in the Fletcher School program at Tufts University who works part-time for an international visitors program there, came away from one of Adelman's briefings incensed: "He came on like a junior Mafia don."

"He treated them patronizingly," she says of the dignitaries she was escorting. "He began to make tough-guy statements, linking their countries' votes on the General Assembly floor to how the U.S. would treat their countries in the future."

On another occasion, last June, a group of about 60 congressional aides went to the United Nations for briefings on African issues. The trip was sponsored by the African-American Institute, and the group was particularly eager to hear Adelman explain why the U.S. would not support independence for Namibia (now controlled by South Africa in defiance of the U.N.) until Cuban troops withdrew from neighboring Angola.

Says one of the aides, who asked not to be named: "I can't tell you how badly Adelman fared compared to his African counterparts. He was flip, he was ill-prepared, he was combative and not at all good in framing the U.S. position on issues. The West German ambassador gave an excellent presentation. The Nigerian ambassador gave an excellent presentation. And then we had this yo-yo, and that's being charitable . . ."

Susan Johnson was also at that briefing. "My impression was that the problem was more sort of how he said it rather than what he said," Johnson says. "Some interpreted it to be unfeeling or uncaring. He's very matter-of-fact . . . There were very high emotions on the part of the people there and he seemed not to be factoring it in."

The U.N. and Adelman were an explosive combination at times. "He tends to use sort of punchy words, very direct," Johnson says. "He doesn't use sort of soft, circumloquacious words."

"Sure, there're a lot of frustrations," Adelman says now of the U.N. "I think it can work a lot better than it does now."

He accepted the job because "it was very different," he says. "I didn't know about the U.N. that much--the international diplomatic set."

Adelman discussed his feelings about the U.N. with a friend, former national security adviser Richard V. Allen, who won't go into detail but says this: "I asked him, 'What's it like up there?' 'You won't believe it,' he said."

Adelman's friends describe him as a man excited by ideas, occasionally so caught up in them that he forgets his social graces.

"He can be feisty," says Donald Rumsfeld. Adelman worked as an assistant to Rumsfeld when he was secretary of defense under President Ford. "It isn't a personal thing. Because he doesn't run around thinking about himself, there are times when people would raise an idea that was defective and he would comment without care or deference to the author. That's because he's so interested in ideas."

Indeed, there's a side of him that appears argumentative. There are times when not only does he know it, but he loves it.

Adelman tells the following story. Several years ago, he persuaded Georgetown University to let him teach an evening course in Shakespeare. "I approached them and they said, 'Well, you have no real academic background in this,' and I said, 'I know, but I know more of the Shakespeare than the students and we'll have a good time of it,' and they said, 'We'll do it and see if it flies.' "

He taught several classes, including one on 'Hamlet.' "We had very lively sessions," Adelman says. "We had a woman who had written a play on 'Hamlet' which she inflicted upon me--it wasn't very good. She got very angry with what I was saying and I disagreed very much with what she was saying and she and two of her associates stood up and walked out of my class in a big huff and puff. Slammed the door. I said to the class, 'I feel like a success as a professor.' Someone said, 'I don't know why--it seems like your class is disintegrating around you.' I said, 'Well, that may be, but if anyone had told me that Laertes' relationship with Ophelia would send this kind of emotional stir in our class, I would never have believed it.' " Adelman says the students who walked out returned the following week.

Friends say Adelman eschews the power of position, that he doesn't really want it. Yet he never considered withdrawing his name from nomination: "I really never did," he says. "I was talking about this with my wife last night. The two of us never had a serious discussion about it . . . That's just kind of funny. It was never within my radar screen."

From most accounts, the confirmation process was a trauma for Adelman as well as his friends. "This is a crucible," said his friend J. Robinson West (until recently an assistant secretary at Interior). Said West of the process, which Adelman doesn't like to talk about much these days: "He has emerged tougher. He faced a personal challenge."

After Adelman's rocky first hearing, a variety of administration officials came in to coach him. He went through two murder boards--grilling sessions that served as practice for the Senate hearings. Though he was a good student, he was sometimes frustrated by not being able to do more to defend himself.

"I'll tell you one thing," says Tom Korologos. "He was a changed guy at the end . It brought him down. Some of that arrogance went away. You could see it."

Korologos gave him some pointers: "It's not any different advice than you give to anyone. I gave it to Nelson Rockefeller, to Jerry Ford, to Kissinger when he was up for secretary of state. The nominee's role during the nomination process is: stay out of the way and be on time." Korologos says each word calmly, firmly. "It's the same advice you give to a bridegroom. It's the bride's and her family's show. The groom just has to show up. Don't foul it up."

Sometimes, Adelman had to work hard at restraint. "He was a bit arrogant, abrasive," says Korologos. "In fact, we sent him notes during the hearing--'Cool it.' "

There is this scene: The third hearing has just concluded, and the coaching seems to have paid off. Adelman had been told to play it low-key. His instructions had been to leave the hearing room immediately after the hearing--no talking to the press or anyone else.But the hearing was over, and there was Adelman hanging around. Korologos was at his side in an instant, whispering: "I told you, get out of here. Get out of here, NOW!"

"Okay, okay, sorry," said Adelman. He left.

A little over a month after his controversial confirmation, the brouhaha has subsided, and, much to Adelman's relief, his name has nearly vanished from the forefront of the news. Instead of expounding on arms control under the glare of television lights and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he can now take up the tasks of running a small federal agency and acting as principal adviser on arms control to the president, secretary of state and national security adviser. He is no longer the of man of the moment but a State Department bureaucrat. "It feels good to get in the job and start doing it," he said.

Adelman is a short, well-built man, just shy of being a little stocky. He swam competitively in the '60s, in high school in Chicago and at Grinnell. He has a round face and curly light brown hair flecked with gray. "Looks like you got a little gray," remarked a friend in the State Department cafeteria one day. "I got a lot of it recently," Adelman said, grinning.

His fingers are thick and stubby with callouses and patches of raw pink skin over them, the result of eczema he has suffered since childhood. He was once hospitalized with it as a child.

He offers little insight on how he became interested in foreign affairs. When he was 6 or 7 years old, he wanted to be a rabbi, according to an older brother, Gerald Adelman, a general insurance man who represents surgeons. He grew up in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago. If he could try any other career in the world, Ken Adelman says now, he would be a theater critic.

"Those kinds of decisions," he says, "are made on the flimsiest of any evidence or the whim of somebody saying to you at a critical moment, 'Oh, go into foreign affairs, that would be good for you,' and you say, 'okay.' That's what you do."

"Now, your background will come in handy in arms control," interjects Hank Grady, an ACDA public relations man, sitting in the room. "You can use the philosophy."

"Or the theology," Adelman says with a laugh.

"His pedigree would have suggested another overall approach to life," said Richard Allen, who had been so impressed by an article of Adelman's he had read on an airplane flight years ago that he immediately got in touch with him. It was Allen who brought him to the Reagan transition team and had offered him a job on the National Security Council staff, which Adelman turned down.

"He went to Africa. I would have thought under those circumstances he would have been more what we call liberal in outlook. He's certainly not a hard-bitten conservative. He's certainly not a mainstream conservative. I certainly would not have thought Ken Adelman a Reaganaut . . . I thought he might have been a Bush guy or a Howard Baker guy."

In 1970, after getting a master's degree from Georgetown, Adelman went to work for the Office of Economic Opportunity during the Nixon administration. It was there that Donald Rumsfeld, who then oversaw that program, noticed him. Adelman shared an office at OEO with a young woman named Carol Craigle, a former staffer in Rumsfeld's congressional office who had come over to OEO with her boss.

"I remember in the first week I was there, I couldn't help but overhear one of his phone conversations. He was setting up a Sherlock Holmes club meeting. Then, another week, I remember him talking about how great his 'Hamlet' class was. I thought, 'Well, this is a pretty unusual bureaucrat.' "

He eventually took her along to one of those Sherlock Holmes club meetings. The next year, they were married. The office sign that bore both their names was placed atop the wedding cake.

They have two daughters, Jocelyn, 5, and Jessica, 7, who have been attending a French-English school, the Fleming School, in Manhattan. Carol is getting her PhD from Johns Hopkins. The family moves here this month. The children also attend a conservative synagogue and Hebrew school.

"I believe it's extremely important for children to have a strong religious upbringing," said Carol Adelman, a Protestant who has no plans to convert to Judaism. "And Ken felt very strongly about the Jewish religion, which I accepted. I have no interpersonal conflicts with that. I think it's wonderful that my girls are Jewish."

Her husband's "transformation to becoming hardline on defense came after we came back from Africa, when he went to work for Defense," she said. The job with Rumsfeld was "a wonderful opportunity to work for a man we both respected and liked," she said. "He had not done a focus on defense or strategic affairs. In a gradual way, he became more conscious of the threat from totalitarian societies."

His year at Defense was followed by several at the Stanford Research Institute in Arlington, a defense-oriented think-tank. He was quite content to stay out of government, he says. During the Reagan transition, he was offered several jobs, all of which he turned down until the U.N. offer came along.

One of the positions he declined was that of deputy to Eugene Rostow, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the man he has now replaced.

After he was confirmed, Adelman paid a courtesy call on Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), one of the senators who fought against Adelman in committee.

"I voted against James Watt," Cranston told Adelman in his office in the Capitol. "Afterwards, I welcomed him into my office for lunch and told him, 'I voted against your confirmation and I hope you prove me wrong.' He didn't. I hope you can."

Adelman laughed nervously. "I hope very much to do so," he said.

Adelman had a similar conversation with Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.0, another leader of the anti-Adelman battle. Adelman vowed to prove that Tsongas' fears about him were unfounded. Now Tsongas says he's still not convinced that Adelman is really a strong arms control supporter, but the senator figures that Adelman is trying very hard to prove himself.

So what does Tsongas really think of Adelman?

"Nice guy," Tsongas said. "The kind of guy you'd want as a next-door neighbor."