When Richard Perle stepped down as assistant secretary of defense on June 1, he believed he could have it all.

Critics called him the "Prince of Darkness," but he saw himself vindicated as a true champion of Western security. And he would have the benefits that have accrued since leaving government, including $300,000 from Random House for his forthcoming novel; "at least" $50,000 from U.S. News & World Report for a monthly column; consulting retainers; lecture fees; and an office at the American Enterprise Institute.

Perle had thrived in the power vacuum in national security policy that opened up during the collapse of the Nixon presidency, and for the rest of the decade he had attempted to block every effort at arms control by Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

When Ronald Reagan came to power, so did he, and throughout the 1980s he continued to confound rivals and their schemes for arms control. By the time Perle left the Pentagon, he had done more to shape the administration's nuclear arms policy than perhaps any individual except Reagan himself.

In fact, the intermediate nuclear force (INF) agreement, which is expected to be signed during the upcoming summit between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, has its origin in a 1981 proposal advanced by Perle -- a proposal his critics say was a public relations ploy to gloss over Reagan's initial opposition to arms control.

Out of office, Perle never intended to be without influence. The familiar short, portly figure, often topped by a Greek fisherman's cap, frequently visited the Pentagon as a consultant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, or showed up at Foggy Bottom, where he signed on as a consultant to Secretary of State George Shultz. And, twice since leaving office, he could have been found at the White House, where he had been summoned by President Reagan to advise on the INF treaty with the Soviet Union.

But the appearance of Perle's on-site power has been belied by a new reality. When Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was in Washington in September to confer with Shultz, Perle's former top deputy and acting successor, Frank Gaffney, was pointedly kept out of the important meetings, though representatives of the State Department and the NSC were present.

With the retirement of Weinberger last week, Perle's ultimate link to the top was severed. Virtually the instant Weinberger departed and Frank Carlucci arrived, Gaffney was forced out. By midnight Friday, Gaffney's belongings were boxed and he was gone. On the spot, Gaffney called a press conference to express his "worries" about the Reagan administration's eagerness for an arms control agreement.

Almost immediately, rumors circulated that this was the beginning of a purge of the Perle network at the Pentagon, but Perle himself suggested that the ousting of his allies would run counter to the interests of the new defense secretary. "Frank Carlucci strikes me as too shrewd a bureaucrat to conduct a purge," he said yesterday.

In the crucial weeks leading into the summit, Perle's reaction to it has been visible on "Nightline" but unseen at the negotiating table. His fame may be building just as his influence is waning. Perle must contemplate his arms legacy from his Chevy Chase home.

His recent wealth can be measured by the enormous hole gouged in his backyard, where his new study will be. But even as Reagan and Gorbachev prepare to sign an arms agreement, Perle, who held the key Pentagon arms control post in the Reagan administration, now negotiates with contractors and inspectors.

But his hours are his own, as he likes it. He has more time to be with his wife Leslie and 8-year-old son Jonathan.

The icons once featured on Perle's Pentagon walls are in storage, awaiting display in the study. There is, of course, the picture of his late mentor, the Democratic hawk of hawks, Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson, for whom he worked throughout the 1970s. There is the testimonial letter from 20 conservative Republican senators, sent Perle on his leaving the Pentagon, expressing "our profound hope that we will not be without your guiding hand in these last two years of the Reagan administration." And there is the framed Winston Churchill quote, which succinctly summarizes his approach:

Never give in,

never give in

never, never, never, never

in nothing great or small,

large or petty --

never give in.

Now Perle has the leisure, if he wishes, to sit at home in the afternoon, sip his espresso, play Bach's "Goldberg Variations" on his new CD and pet his mutt Rembrandt. "He bit Rick Burt," says Perle, referring to the U.S. ambassador to West Germany who, as an assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs, was among Perle's chief rivals. "He's basically a good dog."

Slouched in a wicker chair, feet up, peering over his expansive waistline, Perle recites his favorite bit of doggerel, by Hilaire Belloc: "Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight, but Roaring Bill who killed him thought it right."

"It's a comment of moral judgment on international affairs," he says. "More espresso?"

Thus in a single sweep he reveals two Perles: the overlord and the sybarite. Together they have been an effective team, advancing a pugnacious policy by means of personal charm.

Perle, at 46, is the self-indulgent prisoner of luxe, a man for all desserts, beluga caviar, Monte Cristo cigars, Gauloise cigarettes ("Don't tell my wife") and bread imported from a favorite Parisian bakery. In the late 1970s, he contemplated franchising a chain of souffle' restaurants: the gourmet's mushroom cloud. In office, he was the Robin Leach of NATO, using its meetings to explore the great attractions of Europe.

To his enemies he may be the Prince of Darkness, but to those who know him well he is Richard the Shopper. "I never shop in the United States," he says. "You learn a lot when you shop abroad. I don't think there's anyplace where I can't find something."

His friends consider him, as one put it, "one of the most wonderful people in Washington." They know him as a gracious and generous host, a delightful companion and, above all, a loyal ally in the greater cause.

Even in a mood of self-satisfaction, he expresses concern for two friends tainted by the Iran-contra scandal -- Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, whom he recruited to come to Washington and work for Jackson, and Michael Ledeen, who, at key moments, carried messages among the National Security Council staff, the Israeli government, and Israeli and Iranian arms merchants. Perle wonders if Abrams will be "all right" and why journalists have written terrible things about Ledeen. "At least," he says, "Elliott's not going to satisfy critics of the Central American policy."

The Munich Analogy History, Perle asserts, has absolved him. With the INF agreement pending, he claims he has blocked "bad" arms control in favor of "good" arms control.

"It's a very important agreement as a precedent establishing the principle I've been arguing for for 20 years," he says, "which is that you have to have the patience of Job to get good agreements out of the Soviet Union."

When Perle became assistant secretary of defense, his power, in a normally third-rank job, became almost total because of the vacuum above him. Reagan, who had strong ideological intuitions, was unengaged with the detail of a subject that is nothing if not detail. And Weinberger, who had the greatest mandate for military spending since the end of World War II, had scant knowledge of nuclear strategy.

Weinberger was a lawyer in search of a brief, and Perle was a walking brief. "To a substantial degree, Weinberger relied upon Richard to present him with options and strategies," says a high-ranking Defense Department official. "Senators and congressmen have no desire to stress how day-to-day activity within those institutions is influenced by the staff," says Perle, the former Senate staffer. The same applies to Cabinet officers.

Perle has viewed all previous arms control treaties in the light of the appeasement of Hitler at Munich. Russia, in his use of the analogy, is Nazi Germany. "I don't see any point in denying the analogy because it touches Soviet sensitivities," he says. And he has long taken to flinging quotations from Samuel Hoare, a prominent British appeaser, at his opponents, as if they were hellbent for a nuclear Munich.

"What I've extracted," he says, "is the dynamics in which one gets caught up in desiring negotiations to succeed. As a result, one's objectives get transformed so that in the end you don't know what you were negotiating in the first place. What becomes paramount is getting an agreement."

The public, for its part, feels relief and lowers its guard, a "psychological price that is quite damaging." To Perle, this popular sentiment for peace negotiations is how democracies perish. We have nothing to fear but the lack of fear itself.

"One reason Perle was effective is that he never said he was opposed to an agreement," says a former friend who broke with him over his tactics. "But deep in his heart the notion of an agreement is deeply repugnant to him. We discussed this many times. His whole line of argument about why agreements have to be avoided -- once you start dealing with the Soviet Union you can't control the process, the political system can't tolerate complexity -- this suggests a profound distrust of the American political system."

"I consider his actual views on arms control to be corpus mysticum," says a conservative congressional source. (Though he has worked on the arms control issue with Perle for years, this person does not wish to be identified. Nor do most of those who have had relations with Perle.)

"On the one hand," says this source, "he's been consistent all along in saying a good arms control agreement can be gotten if we're tough enough. There has to be perfect verification. In principle, he says such a thing exists. However, Richard has never met an arms control agreement he's liked. He himself has never, never, never drafted an arms control agreement, even the 'zero option.' One is left, in understanding Perle, with this corpus mysticum. It has accounted for a lot of his success."

As Gorbachev moved point by point to the terms of the "double zero" treaty -- an agreement by both sides to remove medium-range missiles from Europe -- it appeared that Perle might have it both ways, claiming the credit -- proof at last of his good faith -- yet remaining the critic.

But while he says he approves of the INF agreement, in the next breath he adds, "The administration, I hope, will exercise appropriate discipline and not claim that this is the millennium."

For Perle's policies it is far from the millennium. Even as the Senate is preparing to consider the agreement, it is moving to reverse his past efforts to undo arms control. Perle was, after all, the principal architect of the assault on the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and the U.S. repudiation of SALT II limits.

Thus a culminating achievement of the Reagan presidency is dissolving into a tableau of paradox and irony. As Reagan puts himself in the now unbroken line of arms controlling presidents, the accord may not herald the fulfillment of Perle's arms control strategy but the beginning of its reversal.

Why is Perle for the treaty? "It is because he invented it, because it doesn't include strategic weapons and because he despises Europeans," wrote Henry Kissinger in The Wall Street Journal in May.

"Look, there are people who will concoct an infinite number of theories why I am a dark and malevolent force," Perle says. "And the 1981 theory was that the 'zero option' was a ploy to frustrate any agreement because the Soviet Union would never agree. The 1987 theory is that I've been hoist by my own petard, that I don't really like this agreement, that it's a bluff, that our bluff was called, and there's nothing we can do about it.

"The 1988 theory will be that I was for this agreement because it will thwart a strategic agreement by saving the administration's appetite for some kind of agreement. It's already beginning to emerge."

Behind the Scenes Three ideas are advanced to explain Perle's influence. First, that he is brilliant. Second, that he is an uncreative figure, who simply prevents movement toward arms control. And, third, a combination: that he has been clever at stopping things.

A former Reagan administration official and Perle ally, offering a view held across the spectrum, says: "There is nothing easier than stopping something. If you're smart besides, that's a bonus."

Arms control, in fact, is an incredibly laborious process -- SALT II took seven years to produce. Progress in negotiations often cuts against the interests of key bureaucracies. Slowing down an already slow machine requires only persistence and manipulative arts.

The culture of the policy community is calm and dry. And when Perle discusses missile throw weights in his plummy voice he can sound like a late-night jazz disc jockey making urbane judgments on the discography of Bix Beiderbecke. He has mastered the art of keeping his head in public. On other occasions, however, he has been less restrained. To pursue his ends, his charm offensive has its limits. He has relied upon directness, indirection and misdirection.

Those Perle believed were standing in his way were verbally lashed, to their faces and behind their backs. "He gets satisfaction out of being brilliant, and he lets that get in the way of being effective," says Perle's early mentor, Paul Nitze, now arms control adviser to the secretary of state and an architect of the early Cold War policy. "He has humiliated people in debate, but he's not persuaded people. He's demonstrating brilliance. People don't like to be humiliated."

"Whenever he saw someone as a political problem," says a Perle associate who worked closely with him for years, "he'd identify a vulnerability. If he disagreed with a person, it was a matter of life and death. There was a willingness to play very rough."

This ally participated in the network of which Perle was the hub; its spokes ran to the Pentagon and Capitol Hill, to the White House and Foggy Bottom. "There was a constant discussion of people to be promoted, people to be helped, people to be gotten rid of," he says. "This is a good Bolshevik principle: We have to build our own cadres, people who support our philosophy."

Wherever Perle could exercise influence, balance was not his goal. For example, as the Defense Department representative to the U.S. Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan federal agency, he "fought the hiring of liberals," says a former Reagan administration official and Perle friend. "He knows his position and will exploit it to the full. He will never concede."

"His bargaining on the Russians," adds this friend, "is an extrapolation of his position of operating on personal terms."

Perle's opponents, however, were not easily classifiable by ideology. Conservatives within the Reagan administration who were not following his line were considered especially dangerous because they were competitors for power over the arms control agenda.

"He's got his own team of people in the interagency structures," says a high-ranking State Department official about Perle's method when he was in office. "The {arms control} machinery grinds away; nothing gets resolved."

"He was exceedingly smooth, exceedingly articulate and exceedingly disarming," says a former official who participated in the START arms negotiations early in the Reagan administration. "Sometimes he was quite frank about what he was up to. He'd say, 'The Soviets will never buy this.' And he'd come up with a proposal that was totally outrageous. Then he'd go back and play some bureaucratic games. Papers prepared would be slowed, wouldn't be ready. Very often Perle wouldn't come to meetings."

Perle's influence has been bolstered by his systematic leaking to columnists. Even if he were speaking in his velvet voice, many say they worried that, if they challenged him, what happened in closed meetings would be splashed across the op-ed pages, and they would be depicted as soft on communism. "I've seen the terror he strikes in people," says a former State Department official.

"George Will and I are very old friends," says Perle. "Evans and Novak I know well. They're friends." And Robert Bartley, the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, is also close. For them, according to a conservative journalist who has had a friendly relationship with Perle over the years, he was an extraordinary source, who offered more than information. He provided a map to guide sympathetic writers through the murky shoals of national security policy. His analysis, always against arms control, often wound up guiding their analysis.

"The notion of leaking information to them ... I don't," says Perle. "I'm very careful ... It's pure surmise."

"I think it's easy to intimidate liberals," remarks a conservative Senate staffer who has observed Perle do so on numerous occasions. "It's just putting their names in an Evans and Novak column. That makes them a pariah." And not just liberals.

In 1982, the Commerce Department was rattled by a debate about whether to permit the International Harvester Co., then near collapse, to sell a 10-year-old blueprint for a farm implement factory to Russia. Commerce officials favored the sale. So, too, did the NSC. According to a participant in the crucial meeting on the matter, Perle and a deputy, the only representatives present from the Pentagon, were the lone objectors.

In the end, the deal went through, but within days, a startled Commerce Department was strafed by conservative columnists. Will, for example, on Jan. 18, 1982, made detailed references to the proposed deal and concluded: "This administration evidently loves commerce more than it loathes communism."

Another case: In 1978, a CIA analyst, David S. Sullivan, wrote a report arguing that Russia had violated many arms treaties. And he contended that his assessment should be central to an agency intelligence estimate. After Sullivan was overruled he leaked his classified report to Perle. Jackson, at that moment, was conducting a holy war against the SALT II treaty and raising the issue of past Soviet violations as a rallying point.

CIA Director Stansfield Turner discovered the leak. "Sullivan," he says, "jeopardized important secrets for our country. He quit 30 seconds before I fired him."

Turner then confronted Jackson with Perle's role in the leak. Jackson called his aide into the room. "We had a thorough discussion," says Turner. "And he {Jackson} reprimanded him." Turner urged Perle's dismissal, but Jackson protected him and the Sullivan-Perle alliance continued over the years. After being pushed out of the CIA, Sullivan joined the Senate staff, and there helped organize right-wing staffers into an ideological network called the Madison Group, named after the Madison Hotel coffee shop, where they met.

When Perle rose in 1981 to his Pentagon post, Sullivan was elevated to counselor of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He was pressured out of ACDA after a few months and was hired by a group of New Right senators. Sullivan was "Richard's enforcer" on the Hill, says a friend of both. Together they pushed for a mandatory annual administration report to Congress on Soviet violations.

Over Perle's opposition, Reagan informally upheld the basic strictures of SALT II, on the advice of the joint chiefs, who warned that the Russians were better positioned to expand their arsenal if the accord were jettisoned. In 1984, the first report on Soviet cheating was provided to Congress, which created an official warrant for abandoning U.S. adherence to the SALT II treaty.

In November 1985, on the eve of the first Gorbachev-Reagan summit in Geneva, Weinberger's memo to the president, written by Perle, evoked "German treaty violations" leading into World War II. Churchill was recalled and Reagan urged to play the part. This privileged communication was disseminated widely throughout the national security bureaucracies, but it had no classified stamp on it. There was, therefore, no price to pay for leaking it to the press, and portions were promptly published.

Finally, on May 27, 1986, the president announced that as far as the United States was concerned SALT II was a dead letter.

Roads Untraveled Until now, the Reagan administration's strategic path through the 1980s has been marked by roads not taken. One such road was Nitze's exploratory effort in 1982 to reach agreement on arms control with the principal Soviet negotiator, Yuli Kvitsinsky -- the so-called "walk in the woods." Afterward, Perle furiously undermined any chance of the administration's accepting their tentative understanding. He used the "zero option" as an alternative -- unacceptable to the Soviets then, and now the basis of the INF agreement.

"Perle was shaking with anger after the 'walk in the woods,' " says Strobe Talbott, the Time magazine Washington bureau chief and arms control chronicler. "He hated every single part of it. He accused Nitze of 'dishonesty.' "

The subtext involved more than arms control: Nitze had brought Perle to Washington and given him his first job.

Yet, later, Perle attempted to disarm Nitze, expressing regrets. "He told me," says Nitze, "that he had come to the conclusion we'd have been better off if we'd accepted the 'walk in the woods' just as I had negotiated it with Kvitsinsky."

Perle neither confirms nor denies offering Nitze an apology, which would have been tantamount to an apology for the subsequent history of arms control in the Reagan era. Rather, he justifies the course he took.

"It was necessary," he says, "to separate the terms of the proposal Paul made from the political implications of putting that proposal forward. On balance, it seemed to me a bad idea to put forward. I think the elimination of these weapons was better -- the 'zero option.' " Thus Perle presents himself, not as the foiler of arms control, but as its ultimate practitioner.

Yet Nitze, who wears a red hat in the church of foreign policy and has survived many inquisitions, questions the corpus mysticum aspect of the Perle persona.

Did Perle have a strategy for arms control?

In his office at the State Department, Nitze leans back in a wing chair and narrows his eyes. "I'm not sure," he says with great deliberation, "that he had an agenda at all."

Tomorrow: Richard Perle learns nuclear theology.