The quote was electric, bound to be repeated and recalled in endless editorials and on the talk show and cocktail party circuit.

The administration's budget cuts, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett was supposed to have said, might force some students to practice "stereo divestiture, automobile divestiture, three-weeks-at-the-beach divestiture." Driving down a road in New England, Chuck Wexler was as startled by the remarks as they blasted from his car radio as people who didn't know Bennett.

"I thought, oh, God, it doesn't sound like him," says Wexler, a good friend of Bennett's for the last 15 years. The next time he was in Washington, he asked Bennett what he meant. Bennett was annoyed.

"He said, 'That is not what I said. You should know.' Then I read the transcript and I felt awful. Here I am jumping on him -- and I realized as a friend I should have known better."

Bennett, who contended that his remarks had been taken out of context, thought one person he wouldn't have to explain himself to was Wexler.

What Wexler experienced was an instant baptism in the rules of Washington friendships: Washington power brokers depend on longtime friends for loyalty and advice that's not distorted by the Washington microscope.

Bennett, 44, and Wexler, 37, an executive for the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Gaithersburg, met in the early '70s when Bennett was a dean at Boston University and Wexler a student leader there. They became buddies -- not the only friend either has, but friends of distinction. When Bennett got married five years ago, Wexler and another friend accompanied the newlyweds on the mountain-climbing portion of their honeymoon. When Bennett thought he was going to be late for his 3-year-old's birthday party, Wexler was the one who hid the toy animals and collected the balloons. On Sundays, they play touch football.

Bennett and Wexler have a friendship that could probably thrive in any city, but in Washington it comes under unusual pressures unique to Washington power circles.

Washington friendships have special origins, rules and rituals. They can be a pleasant melding of the famous and the unknown, or they can be competitive, caught in the indigenous game of access and clout. The numbers of ambitious, aggressive-personality types strain friendships. "For many people, work is their life, their friend," says psychologist Barbara Urban.

All friendships need to be worked at, but Washington friendships often need to be worked in. Job demands and workaholic natures result in Filofax friendships, where time with friends is scheduled. And often a friend is no sooner found than lost -- transferred or voted out of town.

All this imposes a superficiality, and adds up to a town that can be brutally disastrous on friendships, according to psychologists, psychiatrists, job counselors, social workers and several pairs of friends.

"Because it is a high-stakes town," says Urban, "it is hard to know whether a friend is there just for you."

Pals in Powertown Power, the commodity that most touches the lives of the 3.5 million people in the capital area, is what makes Washington friendships slippery. Dr. Rex Buxton, a psychiatrist who has had 46 years of observing Washington personal dynamics, puts it absolutely: "The basis of people seeking out each other and getting involved in friendships in Washington is pure unadulterated power."

The quest for power -- whether real or imaginary, direct or filtering far down the GS scale -- has its price of backlash and isolation.

"Some of those things you need in a friendship -- the ability to trust, the ability to confide -- you may not be able to have so easily. Those power brokers may feel isolated. They, and everyone, wants to be liked for who they are, not just the aura around them," says Dr. Susan Blumenthal, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health.

The personality of Washington, and its location -- not quite north, not quite south -- puts a hazy veil over the power grab and adds a sometimes unexpected tension to friendships.

"Washington is an 'up-south' town. It is swiftly moving and part of the federal government ... fast and competitive. {But} Washington is also small and cozy ... The two blend into a collaboration that makes the competition different," says Linda N. Gunn, a social worker who is director of community relations at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington. "So people in Washington have a tendency to watch out; they differentiate between 'associates' and 'friends.' "

An "associate" may be a person who shares similar ideology, works in tandem to make deals happen and knows the relationship might be mutually advantageous. It also can be an acquaintance that lasts only as long as the campaign or conference, and an excuse when a politician's actions are questioned or investigated and distance is needed. "He's only a political friend" thus indicates half a cup of friendship.

In Washington, more than other cities, says Buxton, the bottom line becomes "a real friend is someone who doesn't need you." The Bennett-Wexler association has passed this test. Though he once worked for Bennett and discussed working for him in Washington, Wexler pursues an independent career.

Whatever their individual status, people in the power loop have to develop a litmus test for friendships. Gail Berendzen, the wife of the president of American University, says she feels Washington is one of the hardest places to form friendships, and she counts only three people as close friends.

"Very often I'm approached by someone who wants a job or a professor who is looking for something. I say if there is something I can help with, I will. But I tell them very quickly, within five minutes, I can't affect policy," says Berendzen.

But occasionally she gets stung. "A passing acquaintance" asked to have lunch and after a pleasant chat, they quibbled over the bill. Finally Berendzen let the other woman pay. "A few days later she called and asked for the phone number of a very important person. I said no. And she said, 'What kind of friend are you? I took you to lunch. You owe me.' "

The Silent Partner The Bennett-Wexler friendship has survived one's ascent into power. After five years at Boston University, Bennett became executive director of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, then came to Washington in 1981 to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1985 he became secretary of education. Wexler, meanwhile, went to Florida State University for his master's in criminology, then to MIT for his doctorate in city planning. He worked for the Boston Police Department, where he earned a reputation as an expert in race relations. But his reputation was in specialized circles; Bennett's was nationwide.

Diane Sawyer, CBS' "60 Minutes" correspondent, and Susan Flack, a Washington attorney, are another example of the bond between a celebrity and a lesser-known person.

Sawyer and Flack have known one another since their childhoods in Louisville. Flack moved to Washington in 1968 to work for the Federal Power Commission, Sawyer shortly after to work for the Nixon White House. Though Sawyer is now based in New York, they continue their friendship by shuttle, telephone and mail. Like many pairs of friends, they synchronize in thought but are opposites in appearance and style. Flack has a jumble of dark hair, bounces even when she is sitting still and expresses herself with gestures as well as words. Sawyer, her blond hair pulled back, speaks clearly but softly, carefully reserving her words as well as her expressions.

"The friendship you make early in your life is at the level of the kind of person you want to be," Sawyer says. "You are always measuring yourself implicitly against the innocence you brought to it. You are always gauging the kind of person you have become, rather than what you have accomplished. I think that is why what I do in my work has no bearing {on my relationship with Susan}."

Flack knows the Sawyer who is both single-minded and absent-minded. "I am the one walking down the street with a book who walks into the lamppost," says Sawyer. "And Susan will be there to have the ambulance waiting for me at the next corner. It is as if all the rest of that {celebrity} exists on some other plane."

Flack takes Sawyer's leap from the journalism pack to star TV interviewer in stride:

"Does it matter whether she is in Paris and can't have dinner, or in Manila and can't have dinner, or at the Madison at a stakeout and can't have dinner?" Flack asks. "She just stays at nicer hotels now."

The status of the visible partner brings special responsibilities to the relatively unknown friend: to respect a desire for privacy that can be almost fanatic; to understand that the relationship should not be used as currency to enhance one's own status; and, occasionally, to bring the famous friend down to earth. That sometimes takes the form of a jab at the ego. When Bennett, an athlete from his days at Washington's Gonzaga High School, is doing particularly well in the touch football game, Wexler can call him "Secretary of Everything" and get away with an irreverence the other players can't.

The Drop In Washington, a city where a reputation can be made very quickly, stardom often rides on a title: the presidential press secretary. Clerk to a Supreme Court justice. Campaign manager.

But a reputation can be ruined just as quickly, and a "former" in front of a title immediately diminishes the prestige. And, when a Washington political friendship unravels -- sometimes overnight with the swiftness of a tornado -- it can be painful and public.

The day after an election loss, the invitations stop.

"That is probably the hardest thing for anybody," says Rhoda Glickman, executive director of the Congressional Arts Caucus and the wife of Rep. Danny Glickman (D-Kan.). "We all know an invitation to a reception is not a friendship invitation. It is a business {invitation}."

"Yet members of Congress allow themselves to be used. They accept all these invitations knowing what they really are," says Susan Torricelli, public relations consultant, the wife of Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) and one of Glickman's closest friends.

Glickman finishes: "It is still hard for people to really believe, 'I am not worth that.' "

"One of the hazards of friendships in Washington is that some people might blur the job with who they are," says Blumenthal. "When the change occurs, there is a severe identity crisis and severe blows to their self-esteem."

Another reason friendships end abruptly in Washington is the threat of scandal. In 1983 Lillian Wiggins, a member of the D.C. Lottery Board, became the target of an investigation by the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office. It was alleged that Wiggins received a fur coat from the wife of a winner of a contract issued by the board, but Wiggins was never charged with any wrongdoing.

Overnight, says Wiggins, her friends disappeared.

"I felt sure people would know me and know my integrity was beyond question," says Wiggins. She had been the women's editor of the Washington Afro-American for nearly nine years and had been a community activist, someone who had raised tuition for students and given an annual party for underprivileged children -- a person generally known as someone to turn to in the hour of need.

"Before this happened I was riding high. I was invited to everything. It would appear I had something to offer," says Wiggins. But when the allegations surfaced, instead of receiving support, she says, she was ostracized.

"Much of what was done to me was done by my so-called friends. I got letters that said I was worshiping at the altar of corruption, that I had some of my family living in big houses in North Portal estates, that my son had received a recreational vehicle from one of the contractors."

For a year she stayed at home, confused by most of her friends' reactions. "None of these people looked at me as innocent until proven guilty. I got unsigned notes that said, 'You've been knocked off your high horse.' "

Eventually Wiggins relieved her stress through prayer and exercise and "learning how to be by myself," and adopted the motto, "With faith, God will make your enemies your footstools." Now working part-time at the Washington Informer, Wiggins says she has learned to distinguish between friends and acquaintances.

"And I have learned to be completely dependent on Lil. I learned that the most important aspect of my life was my family," says Wiggins. "I will never believe again that you are so powerful and so much loved by the community because of your commitments that you will never stand out there alone."

The Friendship Connection

Of course, some Washington friendships are made and maintained in traditional settings -- on the Metro, at the Eastern Market, in churches and schools. Take James Sansom, an assistant treasurer at American Security Bank, and Matthew Paschall, a marketing representative with IBM. They met seven years ago as undergraduates at Howard University. Common interests -- music, albums, women, cars and sports -- brought them together and provide the nexus for a friendship that grows as they build their careers.

But many friendships here start in the midst of rituals peculiar to Washington. Glickman met Torricelli, for example, at a meeting of congressional spouses who wanted to help out in the 1984 Mondale campaign. "We were paired to do something and we had to keep calling one another," remembers Glickman. They began to have lunch, then fill the weekends when their husbands were back in their districts with marathon moviegoing and refined the art of conversation through long phone calls.

Sometimes it's common views on issues. A caucus of six women -- Barbara Blum, Barbara Bode, Patricia Reuss, Anne Broderick Zill, Jeanne Clark Preston and LaDonna Harris -- met during the Carter administration, attracted to the same liberal and feminist causes. They call themselves "The Comanche Amazons," so dubbed by a male friend of Harris, who is a member of the Comanche tribe.

And, though Washington is not the only city with a cultural fast track, art in combination with politics creates a different kind of a social swirl. "This power thing trickles down. The art world can be just as vitriolic and mean-spirited as any," says artist Bill Dunlap, who met friend Willie Lewis, a former teacher and arts activisit at a PEN/Faulkner Foundation event. "But I avoid that and I think I picked up that in Willie right away."

Eavesdropping "Friendships are like the topography of the land," Diane Sawyer says. "They build up in layers and some of the layers show more stress than other layers. But it is the fact that you have gotten layers that really makes them work."

When a relationship has built up over the years, there isn't a need to talk daily or weekly. "Both of us always know the other one does care a lot without the need of touching base at certain intervals," says Susan Flack.

"So much of friendships that last is shorthand," says Sawyer. "It is being able to connect the dots between what happened the last time you talked and what happened now."

A sample of the Flack-Sawyer shorthand:

Flack: "My children wrote and congratulated her when her contract went through. They had followed all the negotiations carefully. My 11-year-old ..."

Sawyer: "There is a certain amount of confusion because her daughter thought when Princess Di got married, it was me. They may have me wrapped up in other ..."

Flack: "... images. But Diane is very special to my kids. And because she is on television it makes her even more special."

Sawyer: "You have so many people you can talk about the course of your career with ... They are very few people with whom you can discuss a differential experience ... It really doesn't interest me to hear what she has to say about my interview with {Greek Prime Minister} Andreas Papandreou."

Flack: "Of course, I didn't see it."

Sawyer: "I know. I knew you all sneak and watch 'Our House.'"

Flack: "Sara {Flack's daughter} was watching something else that was against Diane on '60 Minutes,' and Diane said, 'Well, we got rid of that one.' "

Sawyer: " 'Punky Brewster.' She held me personally responsible for the demise of 'Punky Brewster.' "

Moving On Fitting friends into the rhythm of Washington life is an art.

Rhoda Glickman has developed, casually but still consciously, several circles of friends. There are her husband's associates from Congress, the friends from his law school years at George Washington University, her associates from her jobs, past and present.

"The friends we have made who are not part of the political scene at all, they are the hardest ones to keep social with," says Glickman. Political friends are seen during the week at official functions, but others must be fit into a schedule determined by the demands of two children as well as constituents.

Conversations are as distinct as the circles.

"In Wichita my children were small. Those people knew more about me as a family. When something happens to my kids, I tell those friends," says Glickman.

The transitory nature of Washington fractures relationships. The disruption can be particularly painful because it's not balanced by the natural support system of family and childhood friends.

"Everybody is affected. As a teacher who is involved in training I know someone might be here 10 years while they are being trained. Only one in five stays here," says Buxton.

The Bennett-Wexler friendship has survived geographical separations: Bennett has lived in North Carolina and Washington; Wexler, Boston and Washington. But such a cycle of "engaging and disengaging" can be especially wearing for some.

"People are wary of making an investment of themselves in a friendship that may disappear," says Blumenthal. "These kinds of multiple disruptions can be traumatic. One way of adapting is you don't really let yourself get too close. Then it's harder over time to make solid relationships."

Beyond Politics When four of the Comanche Amazons -- Bode, Blum, Reuss and Zill -- gather to talk about their bonds, the pattern of their conversation is like a dance recital. At some times it's smooth; at others they step over each other's words. Though their introductions were political, after 10 years they interact like family. Last year the youngest daughter of Harris, the president of Americans for Indian Opportunity, got married. The group all functioned as "mothers of the bride," sitting together in the family pew.

In 1977 Blum, now president of the Adams National Bank, was the one with the power, the ability to hire people for the Carter administration, but none of the group took advantage of that.

Blum: "I was trying to get women in the administration."

Zill, cochair of the Women's Campaign Fund: "I remember you being extremely glamorous in the basement of Rayburn at a big meeting."

Reuss, legislative director for Womens Equity Action League: "I was still in Montana having babies."

Bode, president of the Children's Foundation: "Well, I didn't tell everybody I wanted to be assistant secretary of agriculture."

Of the group dynamics, Bode adds, "We are all very competitive women, but we are not directly competitive with each other in our careers. We thus avoid one kind of a pitfall."

Personal crises made them closer. When Zill was feeling blue one day, Bode came over and they just pulled up all the weeds in her back yard. When Harris moved back to Washington after her divorce, Bode arranged for a brunch to "help me deal with my new life style." When Preston, an artist, discovered she had ovarian cancer in 1979, the women helped her talk about her illness, made sure she had a ride to social outings. Bode went with her to the National Institutes of Health and waited during her treatments. And most important, says Preston, "she knew when to leave."

Friends know when they're needed.

When Sansom needs a break from work or needs to spin a new dream, he calls Paschall. They go to Blues Alley or have a meal at the Spaghetti Garden. They are still laughing about last Halloween in Georgetown. "We went down to J. Paul's and got a window seat, just window-watching," says Sansom. Sansom had to be told the mask he hurriedly picked up was one of Freddy Krueger, menace of "Nightmare on Elm Street." Paschall just wore a wig.

Being there is one of the reasons the Bennett-Wexler friendship has grown over the years. "He is the kind of person who will understand immediately; you don't have to explain the whole story," says Wexler.

But one night last year, when Wexler was about to lose his job because a new police commissioner was taking over in Boston, they did go over the whole story, talking out his future while jogging around the Mall.

"It was someone saying 'I understand,' " Wexler says. "He knows me, knows what I had done and knew the people involved, and he said, 'That's not right.' "

Wexler felt better right away. But not because the support came from the secretary of education. Because it came from an old friend named Bill.