It's as if he planned his life from the cradle. He went to the right schools, he made the right contacts, he even married the right woman. He doesn't really make a lot of mistakes. -- Karen Smith de Ruiz, Elliott Abrams' former secretary

Elliott Abrams is doing exactly what he has always wanted to do. As assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, presiding over the war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, he wields the sharp edge of U.S. foreign policy. As the son-in-law of oracles Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, he occupies the highest peak of neoconservative activism. All this, at the relatively tender age of 38.

Sometimes, it would seem, dreams come true.

"He used to stand at the window of his father's law office, overlooking Fifth Avenue, and make these speeches," recalls Larry Hendel, a union representative in Oakland who was Abrams' coeditor on their high school newspaper at the dawn of the 1960s. "It was an intimidating place with fancy electric typewriters and big swivel chairs. Elliott would, like, trip out on it. Once he went to the window and said, 'Look at all the little, tiny people down there. Some day, I'll have control over them all.' He was smiling. Thinking back, I'd say he was half in jest, wholly in earnest."

"Actually, I come out of Queens," Abrams says, "not the neoconservative milieu."

He grew up in a kosher home in Hollis Hills, a well-kept neighborhood of eighth-of-an-acre lots where, he recalls, "you could read the 'Dick and Jane' books and not feel that this was irrelevant to your life experience ... I was raised with the notion that we knew where we fit in. We were a middle-class Jewish family."

His father was an immigration lawyer, his mother a public school teacher -- conventionally liberal Democrats who admired Adlai Stevenson, scorned Joe McCarthy and deeply believed in the American dream. He was especially close to his father, who died in January 1982, four weeks after Abrams became assistant secretary for human rights. In his office, Abrams becomes suddenly subdued as he points out a photograph of his father, smiling proudly next to President Reagan on the day of his swearing-in. "That was the last time we saw each other," Abrams says quietly. "He was 67. And I don't know what to say about that."

Elliott's brother Franklin, five years older and an immigration lawyer himself, recalls that the McCarran-Walter Act was a particular bane of the late Joseph Abrams because it allowed the State Department to exclude political undesirables without specifying the reasons. "It's still going on now -- except that Elliott's doing it," he wryly observes. Such was the stuff of dinner-table discussion, and Elliott eagerly lapped it up.

"Youcan argue," Abrams says of his formative political experiences, "that I had most of them by the time I was 12."

While the counterculture of the '60s celebrated youth and rebellion, he embraced tradition and the values of the establishment.

"Elliott always had a great feeling for older people," recalls his mother Mildred. "He was 'straight' as far as {his contemporaries} were concerned. He was a square."

"Elliott," recalls Franklin, "was not only 'apart from,' he was 'opposed to' -- which is a big difference ... For whatever reasons -- maybe you could attribute it to his being the younger child -- he became much more argumentative than I."

"Opposing," Elliott says, "is lots of fun."

This he discovered at Elisabeth Irwin, a small progressive high school in Greenwich Village. It was "a left-wing place," Abrams says, without exaggeration. The student body, brimming with "red-diaper babies," had included such nascent radicals as Angela Davis and Kathy Boudin, as well as the orphaned children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The faculty was drawn largely from previously black-listed teachers.

"It was also avant-garde in the social sense," Abrams says of the school, which he attended from 1961 to 1965. "There was a lot of marijuana around when this was just beginning to be true at most colleges. You may remember, in the '60s, the sandals and the leather sort of handbag look. Woodstock ... As you can see, it had a very limited effect on me. In fact, it may have had the effect of an inoculation."

"Perhaps he was honing his knife," says Tom Hurwitz, a documentary cinematographer who was Abrams' chief adversary in impromptu high school debates that usually ended in shouting and epithets. "He would have an expression on his face. It would be going too far to call it a sneer. It was a grin." While Hurwitz favored long hair and chinos, Abrams was clean-cut and sported a suit -- "somewhere between blue serge and navy," Hurwitz recalls.

"I was sympathizing with the underdog in the world," Hurwitz continues, "and he was sympathizing with that which identified him with what was powerful, dignified, in authority ... I remember him despising Castro ... He couldn't stand his verbosity and his long speeches and his beard ... It was just horrendous that such an undignified person with such uncivilized trappings should fly in the face of our rich democratic traditions."

At Harvard, Abrams ardently opposed the radical Students for a Democratic Society, some of whom he dismissed as wicked children of the elite, who threw the university into turmoil. It came to a head in the legendary strike of 1969. "One of my proudest moments," he says, "was as one of the founders and leaders of the Ad Hoc Committee to Keep Harvard Open. I still have the badge some place."

Another proud moment had come in 1968, when he was relieved of the chairmanship of Campus Americans for Democratic Action for his heretical support of Hubert Humphrey for president. That year, he attended the Democratic Convention in Chicago as a "gofer" for the AFL-CIO, running messages between hotel rooms while his peers were ducking billy clubs outside in the streets.

"I didn't actually get to see it," Abrams says of the police riot. "I don't remember having a big reaction at the time. I was very unhappy that people, it seemed to me, were destroying the party and making it possible for Nixon's win ...

"I remember going to a high school reunion back then, and people saying, 'Are you for {Eugene} McCarthy?' And I said no. And I started to be abused for being for {George} McGovern, who had come in after Bobby Kennedy was killed ... And when I said, 'No, no, that's not it, I'm for Humphrey,' there was absolute silence. People thought for a moment, then they realized it was a joke. It was a very funny joke. They had actually believed it momentarily. And then they said, 'That's very funny.' And I said, 'No, it's not a joke.' That was when they realized that I was truly hopeless."

"The interesting thing about Elliott, and a lot of neoconservatives his age, is that they're really still living in the '60s," says Steve Kelman, a Harvard professor of government who was Abrams' college roommate. "And they're still acting as if the SDS was about to take over the United States. At most levels Elliott is a very rational and logical person, but somewhere underneath there is a little sort of weirdness and strangeness from having lived through and been seared by the experience of the '60s."

It was in the late '70s that Podhoretz introduced Abrams, a former aide to Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson and a contributor to Commentary, to his stepdaughter Rachel, recently divorced from an Israeli entrepreneur. "I instantly knew that I wanted to marry him," Rachel recalls. "He was incredibly familiar -- sort of like, well, home." Podhoretz had reasons to be gratified by the match. In times gone by, he had feared for Rachel's future. "She had dangerous friends," he recalls. "One was a junkie, another was psychotic, that kind of thing. This was the '60s." Married in 1980, they have three children. "I have often said, flippantly," Podhoretz recounts, "that this is the closest thing to the arranged marriage that the modern world allowed."

Podhoretz had also put Abrams together with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who at the time, like the late Jackson, was a standard-bearer of the neoconservative cause. Moynihan recalls Abrams' tenure as his top aide as "thoroughly pleasant and successful," and was a witness at his wedding in Podhoretz's New York apartment -- an honor also accorded Jackson. But Abrams' relations with Moynihan have cooled.

"I don't know Elliott very well," the senator insists. "Look, the man changed his politics and he changed his party enrollment."

In the summer of 1979, Abrams left Capitol Hill for the law firm of Moynihan's old friend Harry McPherson. Bored with law and alienated by "McGovernism" in the Democratic Party, Abrams was soon handling Jewish outreach for the Reagan campaign, going on to work for the transition team. He was rewarded with a high berth at State, overseeing the United Nations, among other international organizations. In short order, Rep. Bruce Caputo (R-N.Y.), who was gearing up to oppose Moynihan in 1982, received a presidential appointment to the U.N. delegation. This gave Caputo a politically useful credential -- accomplished, so it seemed, with Abrams' assent.

"Elliott was a member of the administration, and the administration had every reason in the world -- I don't think every sufficient reason -- to want to see me lose the next election," says Moynihan, who himself made a splash while U.N. ambassador under President Ford. "That's called 'politics.' It ain't bean bag."

Moynihan supporters were less philosophical. As someone whose career owed so much to Moynihan, Abrams, they believed, should have objected or, at the very least, alerted them to the Caputo appointment. Abrams says he could not have stopped it, and that when he learned of it he tried to contact Moynihan's chief of staff. In any case, Caputo dropped out of the race after revelations that he had fabricated his military record. But word got back to Abrams that the senator's wife considered him guilty of disloyalty. "I know Liz Moynihan thinks Elliott is a traitor," Rachel Abrams says.

"When somebody makes what I consider to be an unfair accusation," Abrams says, "then my usual reaction is not to defend myself to the person in question, but simply to say, 'The hell with it. If that is what you want to think, think it|' "

While assistant secretary for international organization affairs, riding herd on the United Nations, he had stormy times with Jeane Kirkpatrick, an ideological soulmate from the Jackson days. As U.N. ambassador she held cabinet rank, but as assistant secretary he was nominally her boss, making for a clash of the neoconservative titans. "It is institutionally an impossible relationship," Abrams says. "And, in fact, for the period in which I was at IO, Jeane and I stopped being friends. Now that it's over we're friends once again."

Abrams had lobbied his new friends in high places for the IO job. He practically hired himself to his next position. As a member of a search team assembled to replace Ernest Lefever, who was forced to withdraw from the running for assistant secretary for human rights because of Senate opposition, he went to see William Clark, Reagan's confidant and Alexander Haig's deputy secretary of state. "I said, 'You asked me to think about candidates ... I have figured out someone perfect for this job. I mean perfect for this job. Me|' He immediately said, 'Done|' "

He took the post in December 1981. Abrams authored a memo that outlined the Reagan human rights policy. He envisaged removing the "double standard" -- a term used by Kirkpatrick in a famous Commentary article -- that he believed the Carter administration had applied to pro-American authoritarian regimes, particularly in the Western Hemisphere. As assistant secretary, Abrams would promote human rights everywhere, equally. But liberal adversaries saw the policy as one of attacking the Soviet Union and its client states while ignoring the human rights abuses of friendly dictatorships.

"Just looking at his conduct of the human rights office," says former assistant secretary for human rights Patricia Derian, Abrams' predecessor in the Carter administration, "it seemed to be transformed for the most part into a propaganda office."

A major bone of contention was El Salvador, whose government receives substantial U.S. military aid. Aryeh Neier, vice chairman of the activist human rights group Americas Watch, says his initial relations with Abrams were cordial, "but I found him increasingly serving as an apologist for gross abuses of human rights, particularly in El Salvador."

In one instance, says an Americas Watch report, two events widely publicized as civilian massacres by government troops -- at Los Llanitos and the Gualsinga River in the summer of 1984 -- were excluded from the State Department country report that cleared the way for continued American aid. Appearing with Neier on the ABC program "Nightline" in February 1985, Abrams denied that they took place. Asked whether the U.S. embassy had conducted an investigation, he replied, "My memory is that we did, but I don't want to swear to it because I'd have to go back and look at the cables."

In fact, the embassy didn't check out the allegations, "contrary to Secretary Abrams' statements on national television," Americas Watch asserts. The State Department says the victims at Los Llanitos may have been guerrillas who died in combat, while those at Gualsinga River were collaborators who died traveling with guerrillas during battles with government forces.

Groups such as Americas Watch make Abrams pound his fist. "It absolutely drives me crazy," he says. "I wish they wouldn't hide behind the banner of human rights. Americas Watch is a policy group dedicated to undermining U.S. policy in Central America ...

"What's interesting about Americas Watch -- and this is perhaps their worst single habit -- is that the term 'disagreement' is not in their lexicon. If you don't agree with Americas Watch, you are lying." In the same breath, he spurns a different case as "typical garbage from Aryeh Neier."

Abrams picked up Spanish during his human rights tour, and was Secretary of State George Shultz's choice for inter-American affairs when Langhorne Motley resigned in mid-1985. In this capacity he has been a vocal critic of human rights abuses in Chile -- a source of some surprise to his detractors, although they point out that the United States recently abstained on a World Bank loan to Chile (after Abrams said he would recommend a "no" vote) or to back a U.N. resolution condemning the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Last summer, Abrams tangled with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) after the latter denounced the U.S. ambassador to Chile for attending the funeral of Rodrigo Rojas, the Chilean-born Washington youth who was doused with gasoline and set afire by soldiers in Santiago. Helms met with Pinochet a week after the funeral and praised the Chilean government. When he returned, the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee launched an investigation, on suspicion that one of Helms' aides may have passed sensitive American intelligence information to Pinochet. Helms calls the charges "groundless," and blames Abrams, among others, for provoking the inquiry, which is still open.

"I shall always be mystified by his actions on that matter," Helms says of Abrams, who disclaims an active role. "On all other things, I regarded him as a classy guy."

Recently, Abrams collided with his old patron Moynihan over the case of Patricia Lara, a Colombian journalist who was barred from entering the United States to attend a Columbia University awards dinner last October. She was jailed for five days, then deported without official explanation.

Abrams later appeared on the CBS program "60 Minutes" to call Lara "an active liaison between {the M-19} terrorist organization {in Colombia}, which is in the business of murdering people, and the Cuban secret police."

The program also showed Moynihan thundering in the Senate: "It just makes no sense ... It exposes our country, this republic, to ridicule."

"In his defense," Abrams says of Moynihan, "he had no way of knowing anything that we knew. Not in his defense ... he assumed that we must be extremely stupid and irrational. One should not assume that about us."

Abrams has invited Moynihan to inspect the classified intelligence. Moynihan remains unmoved. Lara, who is petitioning the U.S. government to disclose its evidence and restore her visa, has denied Abrams' charges. The Colombian defense ministry said last month that it has no evidence to support them. Colombian officials also assigned Lara a bodyguard after she told them Abrams' comments could expose her to assassination.

The very idea makes Abrams see red.

"No sir|" he shouts. "The people who are doing the killing are her buddies| ... She is in no danger of being killed by those people." He adds, "Patricia Lara is the best case of radical chic I have ever come across."

In the meantime, the war continues.

In the coming months Abrams will doubtless be toiling to cadge the additional $105 million earmarked for the contras in President Reagan's new budget -- and to win additional hearts and minds. Yesterday, on a satellite linkup with reporters in western Europe, he predicted a "slow and steady" escalation of the fighting, with the result "that the Nicaraguan people will rise up" against the Sandinistas.

YetAbrams' policy has yet to be embraced by the public at home, not even by his own brother. "I've told him on occasion I did not think he could win," Franklin Abrams says. "Generally, I make a few discreet inquiries and then, you know, I find he is as convinced as ever. So he throws a few more facts into the argument and I hold my tongue. Elliott is the kind of person you can't really win an argument with."

In the coming weeks Abrams will likely be answering inquisitors on the House and Senate select committees digging into the Iran-contra affair.

"I have no doubt that a substantial portion of February will be spent testifying," he says. "There'll be a lot of skirmishing. There will be investigations from now until the end of time. There will be hearings. There will be speechmaking galore. Meanwhile, we've got policy to run."

And as for Elliott Abrams?

One admirer, William F. Buckley Jr., says he will be "a very quick victim of any de-ideologization of the executive. On the other hand, that makes him go to school in other circles. He's very bright. He'd be very good at running a foundation, very good as the president of a small college, and later on a larger college."

His wife Rachel hopes he'll find time to "make a lot of money." His father-in-law Podhoretz thinks he'd make an excellent secretary of state. Abrams himself is undecided.

"Maybe one day they'll name a square after him in a free Nicaragua," says his friend Charles Krauthammer, the columnist. "They could call it Plaza de Abrams."