Approximately 3,675 miles from his old haunts on Fleet Street, Harold Evans sits in a small, unmarked office on 24th and N streets planning changes for U.S. News & World Report. He can almost hear the nervous hum of rumor flowing from office to office in the newsroom one floor above him, the manic phone calls, the meetings by the soda machine: "What the hell is he doing down there?"

"They must be worried," Evans says as he gestures toward the brittle nerves on the seventh floor. "Anyone who's ever been taken over suffers a period of great anxiety about the intentions of the newcomers."

Evans should know. Few are better schooled in the politics of the newsroom, and no one has had a more unforgiving master. Evans was the editor of The Sunday Times of London when controversial publisher Rupert Murdoch bought the Times Newspapers four years ago. Murdoch asked Evans to edit the daily Times. Evans agreed. A year later, Evans earned twin distinctions: Britain's Granada Television voted him Editor of the Year and Murdoch fired him.

"The award came just before the firing," says Evans. "But it was close. A couple of weeks, I think."

It was not the best of times. The acerbic satiric magazine Private Eye needled him mercilessly. It dubbed him "Dame Harry Evans" (after the actress Dame Edith Evans) and mocked his modest height, calling him "small but perfectly formed." "We still have the Private Eye wedding announcement hanging in our bathroom," says Tina Brown, who married Evans three years ago and is editor of Vanity Fair. "It just said 'Legal at last.' "

Evans is no longer the one with a nervous stomach. Ever since real estate developer Mortimer Zuckerman bought U.S. News last month for $176.3 million and installed Evans as its editorial director, the staff has wondered what power Evans would wield, what changes an outsider would make in a publication that prides itself so much on sobriety of purpose and tone that some who work there call it "S'News." As in snooze.

Zuckerman and Evans both insist that Marvin L. Stone will remain editor while Evans concentrates on "long-range" decisions. The staff wonders. As one editor says, "The last nine months have been an emotional roller coaster."

A former editor at the magazine once likened the pace of the work week at U.S. News to "a living death." But Evans is an executive of uncommon energy. He both dazzled and infuriated his colleagues at The Times with his verve and penchant for getting involved in nearly every aspect of the paper. If Evans were president, he would control the White House tennis courts. The staff at U.S. News wonders about that, too.

"Harry's an interfering editor," says Anthony Holden, a colleague at The Times and close friend. "Not everybody liked that in England. At The Times, they'd never really had a practicing editor who interfered with anything more than the op-ed page and the leading articles . . . In a way, he's made for America. He has that tremendous energy."

"I'd like to move up to the editorial floor eventually," Evans muses. "You know, there's that marvelous cartoon by Max Beerbohm that shows Lord Northcliffe when he took over The Times. He has this pugnacious look on his face and he's shouting and a lot of graybeards are rushing toward him. 'Hold me fast!' he shouts. 'I feel the demons of sensationalism rising within me!' But there's no public arena for that sort of thing upstairs. Everyone's alone in their separate offices."

Evans smiles at his scenario. He does not really crave such an arena. He is trying to spruce up the cover and the layout of the magazine; he is thinking of instituting an investigative team and altering the system of foreign bureaus. But, he says, there will be no Northcliffe-style changes.

"Harry will certainly, if I know him, transform the atmosphere [at U.S. News]," says former Sunday Times colleague Magnus Linklater. "He was a fertile ideas man. No place is ever the same after he's been there. He brings infectious energy to a place and I should think that will be his greatest impact."

Harold Evans has mostly kept his distance from the U.S. News staff. They rarely see him. But at a meeting on Oct. 15 he gave a short speech intended to soothe rather than excite:

"I told them that the three oldest lies in the world are 'The check is in the post,' 'I'll respect you in the morning' and 'We're from the home office and we're here to help.' I said the third lie is not in eff t. I hope they'll believe me."

Harold Evans was not to the masthead born.

His grandfather was illiterate and his father was a locomotive engineer. England is divided, psychically as well as economically, into the industrial north and cosmopolitan south, and Evans' hometown of Ashton-under-Lyne (near Manchester) is decidedly northern.

Evans was schooled at Durham, not Oxford or Cambridge, and he remains, like many Britons, keenly aware of university pedigree. He introduces numerous figures in "Good Times, Bad Times," his account of his stay at The Times, by reciting their old school ties -- "that old Etonian" (Magnus Linklater), "a first-class honours degree at Lincoln College, Oxford" (editor Bernard Donhoughue).

"The Times was so bound up in class, that Harry's experience there probably made him more aware of class than he ever had been," says Tina Brown.

"I was the first non-Oxbridge man to edit The Times," Evans says. "Except one. The only other one [Sir William Haley] never graduated from university at all."

Evans may wear contact lenses and the fine suit wool of success now, but even an American can hear the pitch of his northern brogue increase when, with great pride, he recalls his start in journalism:

"I got a job at the Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter [at the age of 15] because I had good shorthand. The war was on, it was 1943, and most of the grown men were away. I covered the inquests, the courts and just walked around the streets picking up local news. It was called 'paragraphing.' "

While he was with the Royal Air Force, Evans edited the Empire Flying School Review. He made the mistake of putting photographs of aircraft on the cover and bored his readers. "The next month," says Evans, "I had a photograph of [British actress] Diana Dors on the cover, naked except for a fur muff. It was a complete sellout."

Evans returned to school for a degree, worked as an editor and reporter in Manchester and traveled widely in the United States and India.

When he was 31, Evans became the editor of the Northern Echo, a regional paper in the northeast of England. Evans campaigned against industrial pollution and the quality of goods at local greengrocers.

His best known campaign at the Northern Echo was to come to the defense of Timothy Evans, a Londoner who was falsely accused of murdering his wife and child and hanged. The government refused an inquiry until the paper's "Man on Our Conscience" series helped arouse interest about the case in Parliament.

"We caused a hell of a row," Evans says with unconcealed delight.

An inquest was held and the queen granted a pardon.

The House of Commons soon abandoned the death penalty and Harold Evans received a call from the executives at The Sunday Times in London.

In this country, Evans is best known as an adversary of Rupert Murdoch and, says The Nation magazine's media critic Alexander Cockburn, "when you have Rupert Murdoch as your enemy, it makes you look damned good."

For 14 years, Evans worked with a minimum of interference from management. Between 1967 and 1981, he and his team of investigative journalists at The Sunday Times thrived under the ownership of the Thomson family. Evans and his "Insight" staff -- Ron Hall, Bruce Page, Godfrey Hodgson and Phillip Knightley among them -- were responsible for uncovering numerous scandals in British government and business.

Murdoch's purchase of the highly profitable Sunday Times and the stately but struggling Times from the Thomson family in March 1981 was a shock to the British establishment. Murdoch's papers around the world are rarely celebrated for their subtlety -- "RADIOACTIVE MAN LOOSE IN CITY" whispered a recent headline in the New York Post -- and Britain feared for one of its revered institutions.

The Times, which celebrates its 200th anniversary in 1985, began as a self-described "Register of the times, the faithful recorder of every species of Intelligence." Its correspondents included Benjamin Disraeli in London and William Thackeray in Paris. Critics have often accused the paper of being too cozy with the government, too imperial, too self-consciously geared to the ruling classes -- it managed to call Gandhi a "mischievous crank with a talent for fomenting disorder." But the prospect of Murdoch as an owner of The Times dwarfed nearly every previous concern.

For a while Evans supported the idea that separate consortiums of journalists would buy The Sunday Times and The Times. But when that plan proved impractical in his eyes, Evans helped Murdoch complete the deal with the Thomson family for both papers, and Evans became the editor of the daily paper.

"I don't think Harry is entirely open about his role during that period," says Linklater, a colleague at The Sunday Times and one of the journalists who were pressing for a consortium. "Harry decided, 'If you can't fight them, join them and then try to fight the battle from inside.' In retrospect, Harry was wrong. He admits that."

"I probably should have tried to combine the consortiums," Evans says.

"We knew all about Murdoch and his track record," says Anthony Holden. "Like many before us, we thought we could turn Murdoch around, and for the first six months, we thought that was happening. We were wrong."

Murdoch made written promises that he would not interfere with the editorial content of The Times, but after a honeymoon period, Evans writes, Murdoch violated those promises.

"I'd accept the charge of naivete' or trusting," says Evans. "But to go on harping about Murdoch would suggest an obsession I don't possess. He really doesn't enter my day-to-day consciousness now."

Murdoch fired Evans and paid him a reported settlement of $450,000.

Some of his former colleagues and others in British journalism suggest that Evans can be faulted for more than just naivete' during the Murdoch affair.

"I resigned [from The Times] the day Murdoch bought it, but I'm quite sure Murdoch was right to sack Evans ," says Patrick Brogan, who is now on the editorial board of the New York Daily News. "He was a disaster at the daily. He couldn't make his mind up. He wanted to do everything himself . . . And he spent money like crazy. Zuckerman better be warned that Harry Evans spends other people's money like a drunken sailor."

Typical of Evans' harshest critics, Times Washington columnist Frank Johnson finds "Good Times, Bad Times" to be a self-serving work: "Harry's version of those events is ideologically agreeable to people in America where Murdoch is a right-wing beast who tries to have his way with a kindly, liberal editor. It's an attractive tale for Americans." The book, according to Evans, may soon become a television film.

Evans has come to expect the criticism.

"Oh, all the disgruntled hacks over lunch-time booze pour out their grievances about the editor," he says. "It's easy to monitor the press. You've got an army of finks in your own establishment." Holden claims that miffed employes at The Times would leak internal memos to Private Eye. "It's the usual thing," he says. "Every successful editor leaves a trail of resentful people behind him."

Evans' admirers are legion. No one questions his brilliance with newspaper and magazine design. He has written a half dozen books on the subject. And nearly everyone admires his relentless energy. "One of the greatest editors in the English language," Zuckerman calls him. "He's like a terrier," says Henry Brandon, the Sunday Times Washington correspondent between 1948 and 1983. "There were nights he would stay at the office until all hours. He even took dictation from me over the phone one night. Not many famous editors do that, you know."

"Those years at The Sunday Times were like paradise," says William Shawcross, author of "Sideshow." "For the most part, those times are over in British journalism."

To the dismay of some colleagues, including Shawcross, Evans is friendly with Henry Kissinger and played a major role in editing his memoirs after The Sunday Times bought the rights to run excerpts of "The White House Years." When Evans was going through his troubles at The Times, Kissinger called to offer solace.

Other friends include playwright Tom Stoppard and Holden in Britain and Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee and his wife, reporter Sally Quinn, in the United States. Evans has three children by a previous marriage. He was divorced in 1978. While on holiday from the tumult at The Times three years ago, Evans and Brown were married in the garden of the Bradlees' home in East Hampton, Long Island. The Honorable Shepard Frood presided, and the small guest list included Mortimer Zuckerman.

"Ah, it's a damn nuisance that," he says. "Tina and I don't want to be thought of as a media couple. We won't be interviewed together, though we've been asked many times."

Upstairs in the newsroom the rumor wire is, no doubt, buzzing:

"What is he doing down there?"

Evans is faced with a news magazine that is geared toward that vast chimera of the national spirit and geography known as "middle America."

U.S. News, with a circulation of 2.2 million, trails Time (circulation 4.7 million) and Newsweek (circulation 3 million), but it attracts a highly educated, prosperous audience, predominantly in the Midwest and Sun Belt states. To its faithful readers, U.S. News is reliable and unconcerned with the trendy and the flashy. To its detractors it is painfully dull and conservative, a magazine for the waiting rooms of life.

Evans said that if he were to put "cats or ice cream" on the cover of the magazine -- as Time has -- U.S. News would risk alienating its base of subscribers. "This is essentially going to stay a rather gritty, serious magazine," Evans says. "I don't want people to get the idea that we're going to put on a red nose and a funny hat."

Nora Ephron, who was once Esquire's media critic and is a friend of Zuckerman's, says of the magazine's stolid, conservative image, "I used to go to doctors who were Republicans and I saw the magazine there, but now I go to Democratic doctors and I hardly see it anymore. I guess all you would have to do is make it a tiny bit better and you'd be perceived as doing a bang-up job."

Even though no one believes the editorial content will change radically, there is a great deal of speculation whether Evans, 56, will eventually replace Stone, the magazine's editor since 1976. Stone will receive a total of $4.2 million from the buy-out agreement and some think Stone will retire or take another job.

"It's the feeling of the staff that Marvin's now a caretaker editor," said one ranking editor. "We think he'll guide the management team and smooth the way to put the staff in new hands . . . I think [Evans] will be editor in three to six months. Why wouldn't [Zuckerman] want his own editor?"

Stone has refused interviews recently but in July he told The Washington Post, "[Zuckerman] wants me to stay and I've agreed to stay. It's a question of, you know, nothing lasts forever . . . You know, I have to now start saying it's not our magazine, it's his magazine."

Evans, who was also put in charge of another of Zuckerman's holdings, the Atlantic Monthly Press publishing concern, says that since he left The Times he's had "three years for the heroin of news to be drained from my blood."

Asked if he might change his mind and take over on the seventh floor of U.S. News, Evans says, "I swear to you. I won't."

He leans forward and, in the tones of Ashton-under-Lyne-by-way-of-Fleet Street, he strokes the collective American ego on the floor above him, tries to soothe its anxiety:

"I welcome that line from Missouri: 'Show me.' I respect that. You win respect from an American if you can do something and no British accent is going to do the work for you."

When he first moved here, Evans was not sure if he would stay for long. Now he seems settled in. He has applied for permanent residence and he expects to apply for American citizenship: "I'd like to do that if I find that this great American body can take this alien parasite and not reject it. It sounds corny but I'm in love with this country." Says Brown, "It was boring being so high-profile in a place like London that's getting more and more stagnated."

But one day, Harold Evans says, he may return home.

What would lure him back to England -- another job, the tea at the Garrick Club?

"Old age," he says. "Old age."