THE OLD TAKE-CHARGE Al Haig is folded serenely into a side chair in his Washington office, looking less like a former secretary of state than a Fortune 500 executive who shops on Rodeo Drive. His gold cuff links, spread collar, tapered suit, bulky "A.M. Haig" ID bracelet, Robert Wagner tan and white handkerchief (poking a hefty two inches above his breast pocket) are the California interpretation of the eastern business look. His barrel chest and strong neck, often thrust so far forward he seems ready for someone to chop it off, give him that Commander in Chief of the World touch--or CINCWORLD, as they used to joke at the State Department. Ronald Reagan's Kitchen Cabinet, back in the old days when they had influence, lapped him up.

He is speaking so softly that it is sometimes impossible to hear him, but Haig, 59, has the intense stare and tight movements of an overachiever determined to get an A in relaxation. Now he pauses a long time between sentences, slowly pulling yet another cigarette from its pack, his manicured hands heavy with the enormous synthetic ruby of his big West Point ring. "Do you see some deep psychological meaning in it?" he asks, smiling with the sarcasm of a man who has been analyzed by one thousand and one reporters. "It's the only thing I could afford at the time of graduation."

His 18 months in office were among the most bizarre in recent State Department history. Never has anyone arrived with such credentials and then seemed to misunderstand so much. But now Haig is back--with "Caveat," a short, nasty Washington memoir that is just like the old days. There are enemies in every Cabinet chair, buffoons crowding the Oval Office, and a president kept so distant from policy that ultimately--whether Haig intends it or not--Ronald Reagan looks like a fool.

Not true, says Haig, who calls Reagan "a nice guy." Still, he's not above cracking jokes at the expense of his old boss. "I support our president," he told the National Press Club recently, grinning slyly. "I'm going to work for his reelection. I hope he reads my book. That's why I wrote a short one."

Friends and former colleagues are baffled by why Haig wrote a book so critical of an administration still in office, although the reviewers who might have used it to attack the president's foreign policy have turned on the author himself. "One does not know what to admire less, the mind of the author or the workings of the Reagan administration," writes Stanley Hoffman in the New York Review of Books. ("He hates me second only to Henry," responds Haig. "That's why I'm a poor man's Kissinger.") The president himself is said to be annoyed--but not surprised--that Haig wrote what Reagan considers an inaccurate and self-serving book so close to the election. Still, if it has backfired in parts of Washington, many in the rest of the country must think it's a good yarn. Ghost-written by thriller novelist Charles McCarry, Haig's book is now on the major best-seller lists.

The White House has no official comment on "Caveat," but officials there are doing what they always did--which is helpfully providing anonymous information on what they consider Haig's real motives.

"Don't overengage yourself in the cesspool across the way," Haig says genially. "These guys have only two explanations. One is that I wanted presidential power, and the other is that I went bonkers." He says that Richard Allen, the former national security adviser, was telling the press and "former presidents" that Haig was emotionally unstable because of a double bypass heart operation in March 1980. Allen counters that it was "an ex-president" who "repeatedly put the question to me as to whether a bypass makes one weird." The ex-president is Richard Nixon. His office has no comment.

"My heavens," says Haig, laughing. "There are hundreds of thousands of people"--he laughs again--"who have had this operation. I'm sure it's no different today than an appendectomy."

"One of the things that's bothered me over the last few years was this whole rumor mill about his psychological state," says his son, Alex, 32. "I see no difference in him today than I did 20 years ago. In fact, he felt better after the operation than before. I could never understand what was being said about him at the office." 'One of the Pwns'

"Caveat," though, never solves the real mystery: Why did Haig fail? Here was a supposed expert at Washington maneuvering, a man who learned Nixon palace politics at the knee of the great master, Henry Kissinger. Later, as chief of staff, Haig held the White House together during Watergate. He knew better than anyone the value of allies, of flattery, of enduring the clowns. More than that, he understood foreign policy. Yet by the time he was forced to resign, he seemed to have forgotten every lesson he'd learned.

"I just happened to be one of the pawns on the table," Haig says. "Bill Clark himself the interior secretary and former national security adviser was cannibalized. Ed Meese the White House counselor and attorney general nominee has now been thrown to the wolves. It has been a permanent case of a struggle for power around the president. It started out wrong. You can't have a troika, and then a quadriped he laughs again , which is now down to a dynamic duo."

Others have different ideas about why Haig failed. Some former colleagues say that Haig, a four-star general with a highly developed sense of military rank, had spent his life working toward the number one spot, and once there, felt his days of compromise were over. He was no longer the assistant who had to carry out orders. "Over the years, you get a little less tolerant of compromises of principle," he says. "If that's a shortcoming in my personality, I'll admit to it." Sometimes he was intolerant of other countries as well. "The only way to deal with the Japanese is to put a gun to their heads," an administration official recalls Haig said during an early battle over auto imports. Haig denies it.

But some State Department colleagues say that beneath the blustering tough guy was an insecure former staff aide, unsure of his own intellect, convinced that the White House was undercutting him in the same way that Kissinger had humiliated former secretary of state William Rogers. In their view, he saw every crisis as a test of his "manhood," and would frequently wonder aloud, "What would Henry do?" But it was Nixon he leaned on during regular phone calls; Kissinger, State Department colleagues say, was an obsession he tried to keep off the State Department's seventh floor.

"Henry was on the outskirts of the administration, and that's exactly where Al Haig wanted to keep him," says Richard Allen, whom Haig terms "irrelevant."

"That is totally untrue," responds Haig. "We're close friends. Although we didn't stay in each other's knickers, so to speak."

Still others say that Haig, schooled in the strict hierarchy of the Nixon administration, never understood the collective operating style that Reagan preferred. One former State Department colleague recalls that Haig would often return enraged from the White House, complaining that six people had been in on a meeting.Earlier, when Haig was drawing up his NSDD1, the National Security Decision Directive establishing the structure of Reagan's foreign policy apparatus--and which presidential advisers viewed as an astonishing power grab--a colleague recalls that Haig said of the White House, "We're going to slip off their underwear before they know their pants are unbuckled." Haig finds the remark "colorful," but doesn't remember saying it.

Both White House advisers and State Department colleagues also say Haig never seemed to understand Reagan, whom he sometimes derided. Once, during a small State Department staff meeting, a former colleague says, Haig insisted that he be in on all meetings with Reagan and foreign leaders because Haig wasn't sure what "that poor old man" knew about foreign policy. (Haig denies it. "That is totally out of character for General Haig," says his assistant, Woody Goldberg.)

At the end, Haig was isolated from his own staff as well, protected by the handful of aides who weren't afraid of his rages. "That is such a goddamed stupid suggestion!" a colleague remembers him shouting at Goldberg.

His wife, Pat, says she knew after the first six months that her husband would have to resign, and thinks the tension was worse than what he endured during Watergate. There was, after all, some reason for paranoia. The right wing disliked him as a member of the foreign policy establishment, some in the foreign policy establishment distrusted him because of Watergate, and a number of White House staffers were undercutting him in real fights over substance. Haig saw the first year as the best chance to get tough with the Soviets, while the Reagan staff was more interested in using the president's popularity to preserve his economic agenda at home. There was a chorus of voices speaking on American foreign policy, and Haig really didn't have much chance to see the president alone.

But in another little fillip leaked by the White House, a log shows that the two in fact did see each other alone. Oddly, though, it may better prove Haig's point: From January 1981 to June 1982 there were 109 phone calls but 21 private meetings--or, a little more than one a month. New Endeavors

Haig smokes almost continually during a 90-minute interview. He is polite, friendly but wary, less interested in being charming than in getting out his side of the story. Not once does he say he may have made a mistake. He doesn't say it in "Caveat," either. If his ghostwriter had any problems with that, he's not about to admit it. "All human stories are Rashomon," says McCarry, referring to the Akira Kurosawa film about an abduction that is told by four different characters, from four different points of view.

Haig's office at 15th and L is new and spacious, with a wall-to-wall maroon rug, matching leather-like chairs, an enormous desk and an American flag in the corner--one of those all-purpose Washington offices suitable for a real estate broker or a deposed Third World monarch. It gives no clue as to what its occupant does for a living. But then, his new life is a little vague.

For the record, he is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, the think tank that worries about the future. He is directing a study there, paid for by private corporations, that will assess the future of Europe so that executive planners can figure out how to invest there for the next 20 years.

He is on the boards of MGM/UA, Allegheny International, Leisure Technology Corp. and Commodore International.

His speaking fee is in the neighborhood of $20,000.

He is a consultant to Amway Corp., the $1.13 billion conglomerate that sells cleaning products and promotes a Calvinistic, conservative and intensely patriotic philosophy among its 7,000 employes worldwide. (Last year Amway pled guilty to customs fraud for ducking $27.2 million in duties for goods shipped to Canada. The Canadian government fined the corporation more than $23 million.)

Haig is also a consultant to United Technologies, his old employer, where he made $910,000 as president and chief operating officer in 1980. Now he has helped the company arrange the sale of commercial helicopters to Taiwan, although congressional critics say those helicopters are essentially military in design and so are against legal agreements that prevent the United States from providing that country with offensive weapons--a nice Washington touch, since it was Haig who helped arrange a 1982 communique' that pledged an eventual reduction in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Haig has also helped arrange the sale of military helicopters to the Philippines, according to Harry Gray, the chairman of United Technologies. Last May, after Haig met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippine government canceled an agreement with Bell Helicopters and bought 19 United Technologies helicopters instead--at nearly twice the price.

"When you try to get in to see the decision makers in countries other than the United States, if you don't know the right people, you can waste all kinds of time--or you may never get in," says Gray. "But he's known."

Haig won't say how much he's making from all his endeavors, but one friend guesses it may be close to $1 million a year. In April, he bought a new house in McLean for $550,000. When he left the government, friends say he told them he wanted to make money and didn't want to write his "real" memoir, which would include his version of Watergate. Instead, he would write a more limited, marketable book.

Which is standard operating procedure for the shrewd government official in between jobs. Washington is a place where you need allies to operate, even if you don't like the allies, and even if they don't know very much. After all, doesn't hypocrisy have its place?

"Sure," says Haig, agreeably. "And I'm not a guy, with 35 years of public service, who isn't capable of doing that . . . See, I don't mind the peccadilloes . . . I've seen that stuff done by experts. Some have suggested that maybe I was an expert. But it's when substance is affected that you have to draw the line."

Does he think he might be a little too high-minded?

"High-minded?" he says. "Listen. Anybody who's lived through what I've lived through in this town is not inclined to be high-minded . . . If you're a guy who just comes in and occupies a position and keeps his head down, of course, life can be rather pleasant. They come and go in all their adulations. But if you have a firm set of ideas, and you want to make a difference, you've got to be controversial." The Military Man

Haig's first real sense that the world was an uncertain place may have come when his father died of cancer. Al Haig, the middle child of three but the oldest son, was 10. "It wasn't a sudden traumatic thing as much as it was a dragging sorrow," he says. "But it certainly made clear to me that what I did I was going to have to do myself." His father had been an austere man with a pince-nez and a career as a lawyer that promised the family great success. "We felt the world was our oyster," remembers Haig's sister, Regina Meredith, who's now a lawyer in Trenton and Princeton, N.J. "And then suddenly it was taken away from us."

They scraped together a middle-class life in Bala-Cynwyd, a Philadelphia suburb just on the cusp of the Main Line. Haig had lots of friends and never did particularly well in school. "I was a free spirit as a youngster because I didn't have a father," he says. "I was always in projects which were designed to keep me in what I thought was the swim. I had a lot of money-making schemes, magazine routes. Then I would control three or four other kids who did the same thing." He wanted to be a soldier from the very beginning. "I grew up as the clouds of war were forming," he says, "and I had a normal, youthful attraction for the excitement of the military life. But for a young fellow whose father had died, and whose expectations were nil, I think I saw in it a discipline in which your background, your influence, were irrelevant."

A rich uncle and a tough mother got Haig an appointment to West Point. "It disciplined him," says his wife, Pat. "It showed him a different world. And I think it gave him some masculine influence, which was welcome." He graduated with the class of 1947, finishing 214th out of 310, then went to Japan for postwar duty, where he met and married his wife, who was the daughter of a general on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff. Haig was soon posted to MacArthur's staff, although he worked not for his wife's father but for Gen. Edward M. Almond. "I didn't marry the general's daughter," he says. "I had nothing to do with her father."

He returned to the States, got a master's degree in international relations at Georgetown University, and then, as a young staff major at the Pentagon, was recruited by Joseph Califano, who was at that time the Army's general counsel. Califano worked for Cyrus Vance, the secretary of the Army, and when Vance moved over to work for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Haig and Califano went with him. (Years later, Califano, a Democrat, would represent Haig at his confirmation hearings--for $86,047 in legal fees paid by the president's 1980 transition fund, according to documents made public this month.) Haig then spent a year in Vietnam, leading a battalion to victory in the battle of Ap Gu, and returned as deputy commandant to West Point, where he was recommended by a mutual friend to Kissinger, the national security adviser who needed a staff man. He became indispensable, famous for his dawn-to-midnight work habits. In 1973, Nixon asked Haig to replace H.R. Haldeman, who had been forced to resign as chief of staff.

Some of Haig's former State Department colleagues believe that the key to understanding what really happened to Haig at the State Department is to take a look at the Nixon administration. It was there that they think he first got the idea he could run the country because he virtually did. It fell to Haig to hold the White House together--and, in the end, persuade Nixon to resign. Haig has never talked about Watergate; all he'll say in this interview is, "I presided with all the agony at a time of great trauma in our country. I'm not self-conscious about what I did or didn't do."

In 1974, Gerald Ford appointed Haig supreme Allied commander of the NATO troops in Europe--although the Europeans were at first angry about having a Watergate-stained general dumped on them. But he won them over, particularly by assuring them how much America cared about the alliance at the same time that the Carter administration appeared to the Europeans to be drifting away. "I don't know anybody who ever did it better," he says. After five years, he was popular enough that a number of Europeans told him he ought to be president. He was already living like a king in the 18th-century chateau that NATO provided in Mons, Belgium, jetting all over Europe, visiting the troops, having his picture taken by awed sailors. On one memorable occasion he told a meeting of the Council of Foreign Relations, as reported in Esquire, that "if you knew everything I know, you'd agree with everything I'm about to say."

He was also growing increasingly hostile to Carter and impatient with the job. "You had to have a thick skin to work for him," remembers Richard Sinnreich, a former aide. "You went in and made a case to the old man, and he said you were crazy as a bedbug. But he never held a grudge."

He came back to the States in 1979 to explore the idea of running for president, but his effort went nowhere. His friend Harry Gray made him the president of United Technologies. He hadn't been there a year when Reagan made him his secretary of state. The Kitchen Cabinet thought he would be great, and Nixon is said to have lobbied his aides extensively on Haig's behalf. Equally important, the White House was eager to keep a man with presidential aspirations from throwing hand grenades from the sidelines.

Haig took office as the lone foreign policy expert in the Reagan administration, seemingly on his way to superstardom. In March 1981, Time magazine had him on the cover under the headline "Taking Command," his jaw jutting and chest thrust forward. "On the day that came out, I said to my wife, 'Watch out,' " he says. "And it started. We got bombed for the next two weeks." Not long after, on the day the president was shot, Haig was gripping the podium in the White House briefing room, his face drenched with sweat, telling the world that "I am in control." Haig says in "Caveat" that he was merely out of breath from running up a short flight of stairs. Richard Allen, who was with him, says, "Let's even give him the fact that he ran up the steps. Running up 12 steps is going to make you out of breath? I was standing right next to him once we got in the room. The man's knees were quaking. He was trembling."

The White House was rapidly coming to the conclusion, as early as February 1981, that Haig wouldn't work. There were terrible disagreements about China policy, Central America and Israel, but White House advisers felt that Haig's personality was the real problem. Colleagues say he would leave the State Department for the White House, anticipating immediate approval of the decision he carried under his arm. Once there, he would read directly from his briefing papers. Advisers thought that was odd: Why was this supposed foreign policy expert afraid to talk off the cuff? Then the questions would start. Administration officials say that Haig would get enraged, having to answer to the "pragmatists" who he felt knew nothing about foreign policy.

Numerous State Department officials say the morning staff meetings there were usually tense because no one ever knew when Haig might become angry--although friends say some of it was merely for dramatic effect. Some say he would be calm and even dazzling in his discussions of foreign policy. On other mornings, he would complain about the White House. "It was never 'we,' " recalls David Korn, a former State Department aide and an old friend of Haig. "It was always 'them' and 'us.' "

Things steadily deteriorated, from the flap over who would be in charge of crisis management to Haig's unsuccessful attempts at shuttle diplomacy during the Falklands War to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

On June 24, 1982, Haig was called into the Oval Office. Haig handed the president a list of complaints about the "cacophony of voices" speaking on American foreign policy, and then told him, as he writes in his book, that if it couldn't be straightened out, "then surely you would be better served by another secretary of state." Then next day, he was once again called into the Oval Office. Reagan, Haig writes, handed him an unsealed note. "Dear Al," it said. "It is with the most profound regret that I accept your letter of resignation."

Haig was stunned. As he writes, "The president was accepting a letter of resignation that I had not submitted." 'I'm Ready for Anything'

As the interview nears its end, Haig loosens up a little. He is a little more reflective. "I think I set the tone of Reagan foreign policy with all of the foibles," he says. "I wish I'd been able to do it more effectively, that's all. But I'm still a young man. I'm full of energy, and I'm ready for anything."

The presidency?

"Let me tell you this," he says. "Anyone who is a student of contemporary American history knows that the position of secretary of state--second only to secretary of defense--is the surest way not to be a viable candidate for president. Some of my Republican friends advised me not to take it for that reason. It is the most incredible route for anyone who is machinating for the presidency. But clearly, that has been in the craw of some in the White House since the earliest days."

But when he's asked at the National Press Club if he has presidential ambitions, he answers the question by quoting "my old friend John Connally."

"If you nominate me I will not run," he says, grinning. "If you elect me I will not serve. But if you beg me--I might."