SAN FRANCISCO -- In the kitchen at Lily's Cafe, with the steaming and the chopping and the long steel counters wiped clean for the midday rush, Kevin Sweeney is stacking teacups.

Seven months ago, he was chief press secretary to the front-running Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States.

Okay. He's stacking teacups. Later CBS is going to film him taking lunch orders. The patrons will take that in stride, too, blinking in mild surprise at the television cameras, so now Kevin Sweeney is stacking the cups on a tray, working quickly, smiling, aware that he is being watched: two white cups, two white saucers, two bags Darjeeling tea, one pot boiling water.

Sweeney picks up the tray, balances it on one hand, turns with the most self-restrained little flourish. Former press secretary to Gary Hart, Democrat from Colorado, now here he is a waiter. White shirt, red beard, merry blue eyes, sneakers.

"Smoked chicken pasta salad," Kevin Sweeney says, cracking a one-sided smile. "Grilled chicken parmigiana, grilled swordfish with sauce bearnaise. And an excellent Chicken William with Marsala sauce."

The Chicken William, one wonders, how is that prepared?

"On a grill, dammit," Sweeney says. "So it's a fresh, moist piece of chicken."

He works the lunch shift. He wears a long blue apron. He keeps a pencil behind his right ear. Before the customers arrive he cuts lemons and slices bread and makes sure the red plastic bottles have enough catsup in them.

"On Wednesdays I've got to get in early for staff meetings at 10," he says, deadpan. "We talk restaurant policy."

He says he's a pretty good waiter, but that he used to be better. I'm happy to be here," Sweeney says. Small sigh. "There's just a lot of ways to help."

He talks in shorthand, self-deprecatory, counting off with his fingers: "Platitudinous," Sweeney says. "Two things I want to do with my life. I want to make the world a better place, and I want to have a real good time. This allows me certainly to help do the latter. I don't work that much. I'm doing some things at home that are fun. And also, you don't need a title. I had a grand title a couple months ago. That was real nifty. Reporters took me out to lunch all the time, and people returned my phone calls right away. But there ain't a hell of a lot more to it than that."

Kevin Sweeney is 29 and living in his mother's house in San Bruno, which is a suburb to the south of San Francisco. He's painting the house for her. One of his sisters is pregnant and lives nearby; he will see the newborn baby, which pleases him. In the mornings he drives to the western end of San Francisco, goes to a community college Spanish class, and takes the streetcar to work at Lily's. He's reading George Orwell and Graham Greene and C.P. Snow, because they write about power and political nuance and the use of the English language, and he's also reading Norman MacLean's "A River Runs Through It," because it's about fly fishing.

Sweeney likes fly fishing. He learned to do it in Denver. He learned to fly fish because in May of this year former senator Gary Hart stood up before a national television audience and declared that the presidential selection process "reduces the press of this nation to hunters and presidential candidates to being hunted" and that he consequently was no longer a candidate for the American presidency. So Kevin Sweeney had some time on his hands.

"It was a bad week, shall we say," Sweeney says. "Let me tell you. Gravity-driven campaigns are no fun."

He is tall and quick talking and immensely likable, the blue eyes direct and friendly even when he is about to be shoved toward The Subject: The Candidate's Demise. Sweeney loved Gary Hart's campaigns; he ran press for the Iowa primary before the 1984 convention and had seen that they were nearly all young, the Hart people, and wild with optimism. In the Denver offices of the 1984 headquarters Sweeney and his colleagues had a running joke that was generally delivered when things were absolutely awful and it was 3 in the morning and nothing but two dozen Pepsi-Colas was keeping them awake.

"I would walk into Rick Rider's office," Sweeney says -- Rider was Hart's Iowa field coordinator -- "and say, 'You know, Rick, there is nothing I'd rather do than what I am doing right now.' "

Sweeney grins broadly at the memory of it. "Which was true. I was working on a presidential campaign. I was working for somebody I really believed in, who I thought was going to help make the world a better place. It was a great thing to do. But to say it out loud, at the worst possible moment -- and then we'd say it louder and louder, and soon we'd start laughing, and we'd get over it. It was just a great battle cry. "There is nothing in the world I'd rather do than what I'm doing right now!"

He was a California boy, political science at the University of California at Berkeley, intent on the possibilities of Democratic politics. He had worked in research at the now-disbanded Analysis Center for the Evaluation of Energy Statistics at the Wharton School of Business. He had joined the unsuccessful California gubernatorial campaign of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and had volunteered for Hart's initial presidential campaign, after systematically examining each of the candidates to decide who appealed to him most. It was before that Iowa primary that Sweeney was first asked -- to his surprise, he says -- to direct relations with the press.

"I had never seen a press release," Sweeney says. "I thought I would be talking to these cynical, cigar-chomping slobs, all of whom I would call 'Scoop,' and never have to remember their names."

Sweeney flashes a perfunctory grin at the present cynical cigar-chomping slob. "The most formative experience I've ever had in my life was the Iowa caucuses. I have never in my life had such a feeling of empowerment ... With a lot of work, we felt we had put our boss within a stone's throw of the White House."

And so they had. The next time around, Gary Hart was by all accounts the front-runner. Sweeney was a more experienced press secretary by then; he had been asked a year before the campaign to become Hart's chief press secretary in Washington.

"Didn't expect it," he says. "Didn't know if I was up to it. I mean, I didn't know much about foreign policy. There were so many things I had to learn. But took the job -- out of blind ambition!" Full Sweeney laugh now.

Reporters who worked with him describe him as straightforward and bright and capable of maintaining at least a fac ade of good-humored calm. Did he know what was coming?

"I didn't know it was going to come like this," Sweeney says. "There were rumors out there. I had heard those rumors for a long time."

Sweeney says he tried to find out if the rumors were true, and could not, and assumed that even if they had been true at one time, his candidate would alter his behavior for the presidential campaign. He says he had also heard rumors that some news organization was preparing to tail Gary Hart. When the telephone call came to Denver to let the campaign staff know that The Miami Herald was about to publish its story detailing Hart's now-celebrated night with Donna Rice, Sweeney knew instantly what was about to happen.

"My first reaction was, I thought the campaign was going to end real soon," he says. "My first sense was that whatever story got out there, whatever rumors were there were going to find their way into print -- substantiated or not. That this would be the door that kind of opened up for the press to write about this stuff."

There is no bitterness in Sweeney's voice; he says he could see the elements of an irresistible story as well as the next guy. "Politics. Sex. I didn't know that it would turn out also to have pictures of a beautiful blond woman in a bikini."

It was late at night when Sweeney found out; a jolly evening was ending in Denver, with friends, food, liquor, plans for late-night dancing. He says he slept eight hours over the next five days. "Kind of a horrifying blur," he says. "Everywhere I went there were reporters. Everywhere."

The staff priorities, Sweeney says, had been outlined at a hastily convened meeting the morning The Miami Herald story appeared. "That we were going to emerge with our dignity intact," he says. "That was our principal goal. And regardless of the allegations, we were going to defend him -- that we were his defense attorneys, that he was on trial in public, and everybody deserves a fair trial."

Also they wanted to assure that campaign workers retained their faith in politics, and to protect the Harts' personal lives. "Number five on the list," Sweeney says, "was 'save the campaign.' "

Kevin Sweeney is asked rather a lot these days about anger, about what the young press secretary felt when he, too, saw the bikini pictures. "There was a visceral response that was -- not positive," Sweeney says, and then smiles. "That was press secretary language. But after 20 minutes, you just say, 'Well, okay, fine. Let's get on with the business of life. Let's worry about the campaign.' And also it was obvious, Sunday morning, the human costs that the Hart family was going to pay. They went through hell. I've never seen anything so -- oh, God, brutal. So just that alone made us recognize -- he doesn't need our anger. It doesn't serve any purpose."

Sweeney says he never had a vision of four years in the White House for himself. Press secretary to an American president was not the future he planned, he says. When the campaign ended -- successfully, he hoped -- he intended to come back to California and find work in something besides politics. "It's almost a point I want to make to myself, that I can do other things. I don't want to be starting a family ... and find myself in five years some autumn saying, 'Well, I've got to work a race.' "

Becoming a career waiter is not precisely one of his long-term goals either, but Sweeney likes Lily's. He worked here once before, during a 1983 respite between political campaigns, and nobody minds very much when television crews arrive at noon or Sweeney takes a few days off to make a speech about press relations and the political process. He has turned down offers from other campaigns; nothing has attracted him strongly enough yet to pull him away from his family, and from the break he thinks will have served him well when he takes up politics again.

"The six months I spent working at Lily's in 1983 was very valuable for me -- reading Jefferson, reading the Federalist Papers, reading 'Democracy in America,' " he says. "I know why I am involved in politics. It has to do with making the process better, with enriching the process -- because automatically, then, you will offer better candidates. Better people will percolate to the top. That's why I'm involved. That has damn little to do with Gary Hart, and it has damn little to do with his campaign."

Sweeney still thinks the nation would have been well served by Gary Hart. "I'm sad for the country," he says. "But it isn't gonna stop me. There are still ways to make the process better."

Sweeney has been walked to the cafe around the corner and urged to order some fancy lunch on the newspaper. He responds by requesting one hot dog with melted cheese. As he polishes it off he gets up from the table and slips his blue apron over his shirt and pants.

Kevin Sweeney is due back at work. "I can't wait to get back on the floor," he says. The fog is coming in and he has jammed both hands into his pockets and his grin, as he stalks toward the big front windows at Lily's Cafe, is huge. "I love my job," Sweeney says. "There's nothing I'd rather do than what I am doing right now."