A dogwood tree was dying and as the visitors came up the walk to the new house it was obvious that the crab grass, like summer, had taken hold. Inside, over drinks, the conversation turned to the paintings -- many of them still in packing boxes -- and the chaos that comes of moving. Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr A. Bessmertnykh, finding it all too familiar, said it reminded him of returning home from foreign posts.

"I couldn't possibly have done dinner out of all the mess," Assistant Secretary of State Rozanne L. Ridgway says of that evening more than a year ago. "So we went to a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, about eight of us, and there we continued a very informal discussion of what prospects there might be for progress in areas of our relationships."

For all the seeming conviviality, official U.S.-Soviet differences did not disappear. In fact, within weeks, the Soviets had arrested U.S. News & World Report correspondent Nicholas Daniloff, accusing him of spying. Ridgway and Secretary of State George Shultz were the two Americans who negotiated in secret to free Daniloff and Soviet dissident Yuri Orlov, and this time the circumstances under which she and Bessmertnykh talked were considerably less congenial.

After more than a dozen years of negotiating with representatives of foreign governments, Rozanne Ridgway wasn't surprised by any of it.

"Even as you're sitting at a table working from an agenda that you both agreed on, you expect events will happen outside of that dialogue that have the possibility of turning it off, postponing it, pushing it to the side," she says. "You have to take account of those events, but you keep returning to your fundamental interests that are at the table."

This week, with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Bessmertnykh back in town for meetings with President Reagan and Shultz, Ridgway is again at the table, ready with some of the answers that could help move the two countries closer to a new treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces.

As Shultz's senior adviser on these talks, she was in charge of planning the meetings and outlining their format. But despite long years of dealing with the Soviets, Ridgway makes no pretense of being a Soviet expert. Surrounded and assisted by people who have made the Soviet Union their careers, she says she is "comfortable" with their conclusions, namely, that the United States and the Soviet Union have fundamental differences and that "the task is to make sure that in the {resulting} competition ... we don't destroy the world."

She credits the 1985 Geneva summit with helping "sort out" arms control, human rights, regional conflicts and bilateral relations, establishing "broader interests {that} keep us on track, give us a measure of where we are."

But she warns against getting carried away by the lofty talk about "the spirit" of Geneva that sprang up, as it inevitably does after such agreements.

"If we have a small success in any one of those four categories," she says, "we still cannot allow ourselves to get lost in the signing of one agreement."

Serving a Constituency

Ridgway's dealings with the Soviets go back to 1975, when as deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries affairs, she circled the globe with the U.S. team negotiating fishing rights.

Whether it's fish or missiles, she says, "when you're negotiating something that touches the U.S. national interest ... you still have to come home to a constituency, you have to bring something that group is willing to receive. I don't find that much difference from decade to decade, from de'tente to de'tente.

"There was a sense that because we had arms control agreements {in the 1970s} somehow we were getting along better with the Soviets and that the basic conflict had changed, that the fundamental differences were no longer as great," she says, a wry smile playing about her mouth. "I still had the same fishery constituency that was saying, 'This many fish and not one fish more.'

"They would not say to me, and I wouldn't expect them to say to me, 'You can give the Soviet Union 5,000 more tons of herring because they just signed this nice arms control agreement.' I mean, Ralston Purina doesn't make decisions that way."

She is a realist who believes both countries have to be "clear-eyed" about their long-term differences.

"Her view of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union is of a basically competitive relationship," says Rachel Findley, executive director of the Princeton, N.J.-based Nuclear Dialogue Project. "How that plays out in terms of concrete policy proposals and what she would like to see happen is something we don't know."

Ridgway's Role

A British research group has identified Ridgway as one of only a handful of women in the world holding any of the 800 nuclear decision-making positions. But of the role "policymaker" Ridgway is cautious if not vague.

"We don't make policy decisions every day," she says. "Sometimes the policy decisions were made two or three years ago and we make operational decisions to carry out the policy decisions ... I don't think there is a beginning and an end point to the policy-making process."

As assistant secretary for European and Canadian affairs, Ridgway is a major player holding some of the most complex portfolios at the State Department. Her stewardship of East-West relations, arms control and NATO has put her in the inner sanctum of Shultz advisers.

It has also made her vulnerable to criticism, in particular from women activists who have questioned whether she has challenged assumptions upon which the government's nuclear weapons policies are based.

Ridgway responds to such questions characteristically: quickly and unequivocally.

"There is one assumption I don't challenge," she says. "And that is that the United States has a national security interest in defending itself, and that we live in a nuclear world that may, in fact, for a long time require nuclear weapons."

She describes her participation in State Department meetings considering arms reductions: "Not for one minute do I sit there and say, 'As a woman I pick this missile over that missile.' I'd be laughed out, I wouldn't get back in that room. And I wouldn't want the decision to be made on that basis.

"I say as an informed professional and as a citizen I believe the best balance for the United States is through the following mixture of bombers, air-launched cruise missiles, things of that sort," she says.

"I think they take it too far to suggest that there is a woman's point of view on the profile of American deterrent forces."

Personal Life

Soviet newspapers reporting on the 1985 Geneva summit at times identified the chief Soviet and American negotiators as "A. Bessmertnykh on the Soviet side" and "R. Ridgway on the United States side" and at other times "Assistant Secretary Ridgway." Similar identifications continued during the Reykjavik summit in 1986.

Ridgway learned much later that as a result, many Russians -- including Bessmertnykh's wife -- thought she was just one of the boys. Sofiya Bessmertnykh told Ridgway at a luncheon in April in Moscow that she had known about the night-long negotiations in Geneva, but that she did not realize "Assistant Secretary Ridgway" was a woman until after the Reykjavik summit when Gorbachev referred to "Mrs." Ridgway on television.

"She said something to her husband along the lines of 'Why didn't you tell me?' " Ridgway remembers. "We both laughed over it."

Bessmertnykh's failure to mention Ridgway's gender underscores how far she has come in the 30 years since she joined the male-dominated U.S. Foreign Service and faced State Department inquisitors asking if she was engaged or planned to marry soon.

Tall and scholarly looking with short-cropped graying hair and oversized glasses, she might personify everybody's stereotype of a no-nonsense college professor or a hard-driving business executive -- until you notice her long, perfectly manicured red fingernails. Or hear her laugh. Then her down-to-earth midwesternness pokes through, and it's obvious that she is neither reserved by nature nor aloof by affectation, but merely someone who knows the time to laugh and the time to hang tough. She is an incessant smoker, and newly slender after losing 32 pounds since June.

One of three children of a former teacher turned tire salesman, Rozanne LeJeanne Ridgway was born in St. Paul, Minn., in the middle of the Depression in 1935. She grew up, going all the way from elementary school through college within a six-block area of home. But all the while, she says, she was interested in world affairs.

"Those were the days of radio, and we were a great reading family who all liked current events," she says. "We always ate together, and at the dinner table we talked about what was going on."

She had wanted to teach political science, then at Hamline University added history to her curriculum. She read a Life magazine story about 10 women with interesting careers, one in the Foreign Service, and everything came together. Without telling anyone, she sent off an application to the State Department and between her junior and senior year passed the Foreign Service examination. In 1957, within days of graduating summa cum laude, she was on her way to Washington, D.C.

Her career ladder was a traditional one. Ridgway climbed it by starting out here as an information specialist. Then it was to Palermo, Italy, as a visa officer, to Manila as a personnel officer, back to Washington as an international relations officer, to Oslo as political officer, back to Washington on the Ecuador desk, to the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs as deputy director, to Nassau, Bahamas, as deputy chief of mission.

Then came the fisheries affairs job. The post was vacant, being held, she says, for a man. "I was going to be named 'special assistant' to the vacancy," she says. But she wanted no part of that; she wanted the post.

"I just said, 'There are better things to do than cool my heels,' " she says of her battle to advance. "I had to insist on it."

She got the deputy assistant's post in 1975, and a year later was given the rank of ambassador for oceans and fisheries affairs. In 1977 she was named ambassador to Finland, a post she held until coming home in 1980 to serve as counselor for the State Department in the Carter administration.

In 1981, with Reagan's arrival in the White House, Ridgway's career went on hold. Political appointees were picking off the embassy posts as powerful conservatives, such as Sen. Jesse Helms, made it clear that career officer ideology was suspect because of its dulling effects on Reagan foreign policy.

She was sidelined as a "special negotiator" on the secretary of state's staff, but she found that gave her one advantage: It gave her time to fall in love.

"I was sitting upstairs and I'd take a job of negotiating gold with the Czechoslovakians or fish with the Canadians to keep from going crazy, and one day I looked up and here was this marvelous fellow who had been there since 1976."

She had first met Coast Guard Capt. Theodore Deming when she was negotiating fisheries agreements and he represented the Coast Guard commandant on some of those agreements. In 1982 they decided to get married. Later that summer, Deming was assigned to a command in Alaska. In October, her confirmation as ambassador to the German Democratic Republic came through.

They were married in January 1983, and after honeymooning briefly in Chicago, flew off in opposite directions to begin a long-distance marriage in which the primary mode of communication was tape cassettes.

Occasionally -- every five months or so -- they managed to get together, but not until 1985 when she was back from East Germany and Deming had been reassigned to Washington (he is commanding officer of the Coast Guard Intelligence Coordination Center) did they actually set up house. This summer, nearly two years after they bought it, their North Arlington town house is finally a home, with the paintings hung and crab apple tree growing where the dogwood once stood.

The Negotiator's Style

State Department experts on Eastern European affairs say that as ambassador she put the relationship with East Germany on a businesslike basis that promoted frank dialogue and helped identify bilateral problems. In 1985, in recognition of her performance, Shultz chose her to head European and Canadian Affairs, which includes the Eastern Bloc countries.

There was no easy grace period for Ridgway to master the details of summitry. In July 1985 she was sworn in and moved very quickly to muster facts and people necessary for the November summit.

She is described as bright, creative, analytical and prudent, and in her dealings with people she in turn expects efficiency and rationality.

"There is a lot of stress on everybody in her bureau, but I've never seen her become nasty or unreasonable in her demands," says an aide. "She can and does exercise the right amount of bureaucratic discipline that has to be done selectively, but she does it in a palatable way. She doesn't leave a person destroyed."

Associates describe her operating style as modulated, precise, collegial and cordial. And there are those at State who say it is Ridgway who deserves much of the credit for the movement that has occurred with the Soviets in the last couple of years.

It's an achievement not universally admired in Washington.

Just how bitter differences over arms control policy were within the administration was revealed on the eve of the Geneva summit in a letter leaked to the press, in which Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger warned Reagan against continued adherence to the SALT II treaty.

Weinberger was not a member of the U.S. delegation at that summit, but he was represented there on Ridgway's team by a like-minded foe of SALT II, then-assistant secretary of defense Richard N. Perle. They were, as Weinberger later described Ridgway and Perle, "an odd couple."

"We did make the odd couple and we continue to be," Ridgway agrees. "We see the world quite differently {but} we really worked very well together."

Surprisingly well. When it was all over, they embraced.

"We exchanged kisses. It was appropriate," Ridgway says, still seeming a little amused over the exchange. "I suppose it's like a bridge tournament where people start at the beginning of the night, then suddenly it's 2 a.m. and you've become a partner and you're throwing your arms around one another."

Knowing the Opposition

By no stretch of anybody's imagination have Ridgway and Bessmertnykh become "friends," but as counterparts, they have gotten to know how each other operates, by proximity as well as by banging a table or delivering a de'marche in the middle of the night.

"Getting to know each other doesn't change points of view or change how one organizes national interests to advance them. But it does mean that you have a sense of how the other person works and thinks, and how they respond to challenge," she says.

With that comes knowing how to put forth an issue and knowing what can trigger "an explosion."

"So if you want one, you can get one. Just by a phrase," Ridgway says. "And they know those things about us and get the explosion from us as well. On the other hand, if they know how to capture your attention -- they have a serious proposal and they want you to know that it's different -- they know how to do that as well.

"You get to know people on a first-name basis after a while so that you can look across the table and say, 'By golly, it's time to knock that off.' That requires a first-name basis."

With problems more often managed than solved, negotiators recognize that at some point both sides have to go back to the table. Even when the dialogue is sharp, Ridgway says, it remains courteous. Such model behavior doesn't mean emotions can't and don't surface. Emotion is perfectly acceptable "as long as {the exchange} is informed and there is genuine conviction."

Like everybody else, she says, she has her own set of theatrics, which she describes as "a very real expression of disappointment, a regret that something isn't possible. It's body language. It can also be oral language.

"If you say it's going to be a disappointment and you'll have to leave the negotiations and go home and talk with interested parties about whether it's possible to go on, that has to be genuine," Ridgway says.

"You may present it somewhat more starkly than someone else does, but it has to be a fair statement that you have reached a point in the negotiation that you can't go on as a negotiator, that you have to go back to the United States to check with those people whose interests are engaged, and that you may or may not be back."

It almost came to that in Geneva during the windup session between Ridgway's team and the Soviets' to produce a statement on areas of agreement reached by President Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

"All of the sudden it was back to propaganda ... The old game of let's make big speeches and get one of these communique's that's 35 pages long and is generally meaningless," Ridgway recalls of the turn the session took at that point.

Faced with Soviet intransigence, Ridgway says, "It was understood that I would walk away."

That's when the American team called a halt, and Ridgway, as its chair, headed for the phone to call Reagan and Shultz, who were having dinner with Gorbachev and a small group of senior advisers. The Soviets had their own consultation, and when both sides returned to the table a little later, the big speeches stopped. The two teams worked through the night and produced the statement.

Says a State Department aide familiar with that marathon session: "She was instrumental in hammering out -- literally reworking, fine-tuning piece by piece -- the agreements that were reached."

In the years she has been negotiating a variety of issues for the United States, Ridgway says, she has encountered a few with whom sharing a table was a waste of time.

"There's no feeling of serious intention, no feeling of intellectual engagement, just a lot of anti-this and anti-that," she says. When that happens, "call it off, get some new negotiators."

A sense of humor, Ridgway thinks, is essential, a way of releasing tensions that have nothing to do with ideologies represented on either side of the table. Her own wit, described as biting, is already legendary at State.

"Most of it isn't fit for publication," she says. "It's late-night quick repartee that, I suppose, gives you a reputation in the corridors."

She describes the strain as "a very human thing -- the Russians are as much victims as we are -- and there's a moment when you just instinctively have to say, 'Let's take a break, go have a cup of coffee,' and you walk away from it.

"You don't leave your humanity outside the door," Ridgway says. "You bring your toughness and your convictions and your national interests inside with you, but you bring your humanity inside as well."

The reactions to long hours and the tensions over ideological differences get reduced sometimes to a single bracketed word. "People say, 'Why can't you accept that one simple word?' when in fact, behind that one simple word are entirely different approaches to worlds and people."