He's put his best lines in other people's mouths. You may remember some of them:

"I'd never wear a crown. It messes up your hair." -- Nancy Reagan at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, October 1981.

"It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure why take the chance." -- Ronald Reagan at the Gridiron Dinner, March 1987.

"I wasn't quite sure what to talk about today. I considered telling you about George's recent conversation with the president, when the president poured out his secret, innermost thoughts on Iran. But then I thought, 'Oh, you wouldn't be interested.' " -- Barbara Bush at the Saints and Sinners Roast, December 1986.

By all accounts, Landon Parvin is Nancy Reagan's favorite speech writer, and also one of President Reagan's favorites. Part of the reason is that Parvin has succeeded more than once in turning a troublesome situation to the Reagans' advantage through his interpretation of their feelings, beliefs and what he calls "their voice."

Also part of the reason is his light touch. The trick is taking "strange things and juxtaposing them with stranger ones," says Parvin, who believes that since perceptions cannot be denied, playing to them shows that a speaker doesn't lack for self-confidence.

The result, in Washington at least, can be "personality rehabilitation," says fellow wordsmith Mark Shields, a Parvin admirer and collaborator on at least one occasion -- the time they co-ghosted Donald Regan's lines for the 1986 Gridiron Dinner.

Shields gives Parvin the credit for most of the Regan gags that night. One he cites as among Parvin's best was:

"You can tell a lot about people by the papers they read. The people who read The New York Times know they run the country. The people who read The Washington Post think they run the country. The people who read The Washington Times think The Washington Post runs the country. The people who read The Wall Street Journal think the people who own the country think they damn well run it. The people who read USA Today don't care who runs the country just as long as the weather map is in color."

Because humor has such high visibility in Washington, Parvin sees the lack of it as "almost a character issue -- the public expects political leaders to have it." He is modestly aware that his way with gag lines has earned him the respect, if not envy, of anyone who ever dreamed of leaving 'em laughing, but he sometimes worries that they overshadow his serious lines -- "95 percent of what I write," he says.

Reagan's speech to the American Foundation for AIDS Research at a fund-raising dinner here tonight will no doubt be an example of that.

"Clearly, Landon is not just a writer of jokes. He's been selected to write the AIDS speech which requires a sensitivity on several different levels -- political but also moral, religious and personal for victims and their families," says White House speech writer Dana Rohrabacher.

Though the White House has five full-time speech writers, the Reagans not infrequently bypass them and hire Parvin for special, high-profile occasions. He works out on a free-lance basis out of his Northwest Washington home and among his other clients is Vice President Bush, plus a number of other politicos and corporate chairmen.

"There's no problem at all having Landon write the speech," says Rohrabacher. "He's well-liked by everybody here. He worked here for two and a half years and he's no less a member of the team even now."

A Breed Apart Parvin seems as uninflated by his success and by his access to famous clients as he as about what he writes for them.

"He's not the type to ask, 'Am I writing a great line? Will they call in the stonecutters tomorrow?' " says Gordon Stewart, a former speech writer for the Carter White House who is now vice president of public affairs for the American Stock Exchange. "Landon does not have an enormous personal ego that longs to write something so vivid and powerful that people ask the next day, 'Who wrote that line?' "

In fact, the speech writing field is so mined with show-offs that Parvin's unflamboyant manner has set him apart as almost quaint.

Says Stewart, who knew Parvin before he ever went to work as a White House speech writer early in Reagan's first term: "Landon is not like the rest of us -- he is not megalomanic. Most of us like the surrogate exercise of power but he does not have his own secret agenda for the world."

Parvin would be the last person in the world to deny that.

"Basically what I want from {people} is what they believe," he says. "I don't force my own opinions. I'm not an ideologue ... I could write something I disagreed with, but I couldn't write something I knew to be a lie."

For instance, when he and Reagan first talked about the nationally televised speech the president would make about the Tower commission findings on the Iran-contra arms scandal, Parvin says he didn't have "a scintilla of doubt" about the character or honesty of Ronald Reagan.

"I didn't know what the facts were because I'm not an expert on that kind of thing," Parvin says, "but once he told me what the facts were I was convinced."

But people close to the president give Parvin a large share of the credit for bringing Reagan as close as he has come to acknowledging error on the Iran-contra arms sales.

"A few months ago I told the American people that I did not trade arms for hostages," Reagan said in that Oval Office speech. "My heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not."

Parvin says in those Tower speech sessions, Reagan didn't focus on the details "because the president doesn't focus on details. He looks at the broader vision and aspects of the problem."

Of particular importance to Reagan, according to Parvin, was answering the "basic questions on the minds of the American people: Just how this could have happened and why it went wrong."

Now, three months after the speech and four weeks into the Congressional hearings on the matter, Parvin says he has seen and heard nothing that would change his initial reaction to the president's explanation of what happened and how it went wrong.

Getting Attention

"Nobody," says Parvin, 38, a faint smile playing about his mouth, "ever sets out to be a speech writer -- it's just something that happens."

It just "happened" to him a couple of years after he got his master's degree in labor relations at Cornell University and went to work for a consulting firm in California.

"I didn't like it, and let's face it, I wasn't very good at it," he says.

He grew up in Illinois and did undergraduate work at Champaign-Urbana. He had always gotten A's writing funny themes and papers in school -- including one at Cornell about arbitration and swearing on the job -- so he decided to try his hand at comedy writing. When he realized how much money he wasn't making, he turned his sights on Washington, where there was a big market in writing for politicians.

He caught Mark Russell's show at the Shoreham one night, and at home afterward wrote a few gags he thought Russell might like. Russell did -- so much in fact that he put Parvin in touch with comedian Rich Little and Sid Yudain, then publisher of Roll Call, the Capitol Hill weekly for congressional insiders.

The Little introduction led to a brief gag-writing stint ("I don't care for Hollywood," Parvin says.) The Yudain introduction proved to be more beneficial. It led to a Roll Call column called "Mr. Politics," which brought Parvin some attention.

About that time, he also started helping businessmen liven up their speeches. Though not involved in the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign, he came to the attention of Robert Gray, the public relations executive then, as now, heading Hill and Knowlton's Washington office. Gray hired Parvin as a speech writer; a fake needlepoint proclaiming "God Bless Mr. Gray" that once sat on Parvin's desk now sits on Gray's.

Meanwhile, on the side, Parvin wrote a version of "Ask Mr. Politics" ("Ask Mr. Military/Consumer/Taxes/etc." depending upon the topic) for the Outlook section of The Washington Post. Among his more notable "questions and answers":

q)According to one gossip column, Ronald Reagan is the only presidential candidate who took the time to fill out and send in his census form. Do you happen to know why Mr. Reagan was so conscientious about completing his questionnaire?

a)He thought it was an IQ test. (April 27, 1980)

q)Is it true CBS is filming a TV mini-series about Ronald and Nancy Reagan? And what is the title of the show?

a)Yes, the network is doing a series based on the Reagans which will be called "Hollywood Squares." (March 30, 1980)

q)I understand there is some doubt about Gov. Reagan's grasp of defense matters due to an off-the-cuff remark he made recently. What's the story?

a)Mr. Reagan apparently is under the impression cruise missiles are named so because they leave from Miami with a stopover in Nassau. (June 29, 1980)

Irreverent though it may have been, apparently the Reagans weren't offended. On Gray's recommendation the White House hired Parvin for its new speech writing team, then headed by Ken Kachigian.

"When you write jokes, you can't be too sensitive," Parvin says. "But I didn't know the Reagans then. I think it's harder to write jokes when you know someone because you're afraid you'll hurt their feelings."

The Right Touch

Before the first year at the White House was over, Nancy Reagan's East Wing staff -- which included her press secretary Sheila Tate, whom Parvin had worked with at Hill & Knowlton -- called him to write the speech the first lady would make to the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner in New York.

At that point it was apparent that Nancy Reagan needed to change her image, and if anybody could come up with just the right touch it was Parvin. He obliged with the now-famous "crown" line, in response the "Queen Nancy" label, that started off the turnaround.

The following March he scored again with Mrs. Reagan's lines for the 1982 Gridiron Dinner. His first draft had made fun of the media, some of Mrs. Reagan's friends and others who had been in the news but Mrs. Reagan turned it down.

"She didn't want to do that, she wanted to do more on the {White House} china and the designer clothes, and she told me to go back and rewrite it," Parvin recalls.

The finished product, a self-deprecating reprise the first lady sang to the tune of "Second Hand Rose," captivated a white-tie crowd of Washington's movers and shakers. It also cemented Parvin's relationship with Nancy Reagan.

Last winter when he was enlisted to write Reagan's speech on the Tower commission's findings, speculation ran high about Mrs. Reagan's role in his selection.

"One day I saw a story in the press that the Regan people had brought me in because I had done some work for him at one point," says Parvin. "The next day or two I read that Mrs. Reagan brought me in. In all those articles, they seemed to forget that I was once the president's speechwriter."

Expanding the Clientele

Only a dozen men and women have written speeches for Ronald Reagan since he took office in 1981. "It's a tight fraternity, an elite inner circle," says Rohrabacker.

It's also a circle subject to burnout, says Parvin.

"Liz Carpenter told me once that Lyndon Johnson believed there were only so many speeches, good speeches, in a speech writer," he says. "I thought at the time that's silly but after being at the White House for almost three years I was tired. Johnson was right. You can't do the same thing over and over."

So, feeling tired and burned out one day in his White House office, he was handed a message that then U.S. ambassador to Belgium Charles Price had called. Parvin is used to unexpected calls -- "usually people are begging for jokes." But Price, slated to become ambassador to the Court of St. James, had something quite different in mind. He wanted Parvin to go to work for him in London as his executive assistant. A month later Parvin and his wife Alice were in England.

About a year later, in January 1985, the Parvins returned to Washington and a somewhat more lucrative future. An association with Don Penny, a former comedy adviser to President Ford, lasted about four months before both men decided to go it alone.

Parvin was seldom alone, however. When he wasn't writing silly season gag lines he was writing serious stuff for Washington politicos and an expanding clientele of corporate chief executive officers.

"People say, 'You're so busy, why don't you hire people to help?' But the fact is I have a personal relationship with people I work for and I can't send someone else in."

Just Talking

"I'm not a big believer in speeches. I much prefer a person to just get up and talk," says Parvin, who earns a very comfortable six-figure income because most people aren't very good at just getting up and talking.

Parvin talks quickly, slowing down only for reflective pauses. He has a light, even tone, without much dramatic inflection. He's a warm conversationalist, laughing often, sometimes at his own jokes.

But he never gives speeches -- "I've never really had to" -- though he has listened to enough people who do. And after hours of sitting in audiences in school auditoriums and fire halls around the country he has concluded that you'll never have your audience in the palm of your hand if you can't put into one sentence the message you want to leave with them.

He has also formed his own opinions about some of today's more prominent speakers:

White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker -- "His humor is his own, original. He doesn't really need a text.

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo -- "Overrated. When Baker and he alternated on a radio show {last year}, Cuomo was downright boring. Maybe that shouldn't be an indication. Maybe he didn't take it seriously."

Former White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan -- "It was not difficult to write his Gridiron speech. He did a good job that night. The press treated him well, good reviews. I was proud of him."

Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) -- "He's very funny and has a natural wit. In terms of serious stuff, I haven't heard him do that much, so I don't know."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- "Kennedy tries too hard when he does humor. It's forced. I've seen him on the stump and it's too driven, not natural."

House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) -- "I heard Wright the other night. He was really good -- genuine, natural. Very funny."

Former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro -- "Too bad the natural, funny side of her without the edge didn't come across. I asked her something about the '84 campaign, and I said, 'I don't know, I was out of country during the campaign.' She said, 'I wish I had been.' I thought that was funny."

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) -- "He seems too consciously outraged."

Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis -- "I don't know who's going to vote for anyone who goes to Iowa and tells farmers they should grow Belgian endive."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson -- "He'd be dynamite if he had a sense of humor."

Vice President George Bush -- "I have a vested interest in him. I think people are going to be surprised. Every speaker has to find his voice. They have to find out how they speak, how they are most effective. I think Bush is finding that."

"Up in New Hampshire the other day, he gave a speech. Evans and Novak wrote he was only interrupted twice with applause because it was a yawner of a speech. The fact of the matter is you could have heard a pin drop -- I was there -- he had that audience. They were listening to every word. Just because Novak isn't smart enough to realize that people can listen rather than applaud. He had them. When an audience is absolutely silent, you're getting to that audience."

Parvin is now contributing regularly to Bush's speeches, even though Bush, like Reagan, has his own speech writing staff. Parvin frequently travels with Bush, as he did recently to Ecuador to view the earthquake damage.

"By the time we arrived in Texas where the vice president spoke," says Craig Fuller, Bush's chief of staff, "it was a beautifully crafted speech, and the fact that we call him in represents our highest regard for his ability on important sensitive subjects," Fulle

says.