Nick Brady has always courted invisibility. He was born to family wealth and position, yet his life has been lived beyond the window of celebrity. He rose to the top of one of Wall Street's blue-chip firms, but did so without leaving footprints -- and certainly without the fanfare of, say, a Lee Iacocca. He slipped in and out of the U.S. Senate virtually unnoticed for nine months in 1982. He managed to dodge bullets during the dog days of George Bush's presidential campaign even while intimately involved in almost every significant decision. But things changed rapidly for Brady when he moved to Washington, and sometime during the Christmas holiday at the family farm in New Jersey, he decided to prepare his three grown sons for the worst. As the Brady foursome headed home from a tennis match, he warned his children that it was about to get rough for him in the city where his very good friend, the president-elect, had just reappointed him treasury secretary. Chris Brady, 34, says he remembers the exact turn in the road when his dad explained, "There's about to be some bad press and I don't want you to worry about it ... the facts will be the judge." Brady likes to think of himself as a long-term thinker, a prophet of sorts, who can foresee trouble brewing around dark corners. He certainly saw it coming on that brisk December day. Within weeks, he was clobbered. Certain Reagan administration holdovers let it be known that there was no direction at Treasury. At meetings, Brady came across as bumbling and uninformed. During a conference of foreign economic leaders just a few weeks ago, he began reading a statement not germane to the question he'd been asked -- and realized it only when interrupted. Capitol Hill observers were taken aback by his reticence during hearings and, at times, his admitted unfamiliarity with the facts. A far cry from his predecessor, the savvy and controlled James Baker, they said. "Jim Baker absorbed paper," says one former Treasury official. "This guy doesn't read." It didn't stop there. Brady was blamed for single-handedly causing the dollar to plunge one day by casually announcing on national television that it always goes up and down. ("I should have said fluc-tu-ate," he says now.) Then came the killer: The infamous leak that Brady was considering a proposal to charge savings and loan depositors a "user fee" -- tantamount to a tax. He says it was never a serious option, but other government officials say he was enamored of the idea. In any case, it sounded as if George Bush was about to break his "read my lips" campaign promise. It was Brady's low point. In a town that gets its oxygen from the week's conventional wisdom, Nick Brady was suffocating. Not up to the job, many whispered. Politically inept, others concluded. Brady mulls all this over during a recent lunch in his private dining room, with a what-can-I-say look. It is true, he says, that he long had a reading disability; and while aides dismiss questions about dyslexia, Brady does concede that he fares much better with oral presentations. And yes, he reluctantly allows, perhaps there was a misstatement here or there. "If there's some sort of stories out there that I am personally fumbling -- as long as the treasury is producing results -- it's just fine," he says. He is finishing a bite of steak, and he pauses. "Everybody tries not to make dumb statements but nobody succeeds completely ... If I can do something about the bumbling thing I will. I'll try to be better about the way I say things -- we'll all be better at it." But these words aside, there is nothing self-effacing in his tone. Indeed, Brady seems a paradox at times, a pit bull in sheep's clothing -- the demeanor of Averell Harriman and the soul of Lee Atwater. There is a slight slouch in his stance, and he almost folds his reedy frame inward when he enters a room -- as if he would rather be absorbed into the woodwork than be recognized. But just as George Bush's friends warned the pundits against overreaching on the "wimp" label, so Brady admirers advise not to underestimate him because of an unassuming demeanor. "If there is a winning side and losing side to a game, he absolutely has to be on the winning side," says his wife of 37 years, Kitty. "I mean, he can play tennis with little old ladies and be polite -- but he'd rather play to win." And so there is something else he has to say about his recent troubles: "I worry about {the criticism} less than others," he says bluntly. "As I've said, I am not seeking the Big Afterlife in government ... I have always played to a very small audience." "Very small" could almost be hyperbole in this case, since his audience these days totals one: George Bush. Nicholas Frederick Brady, 59, is the official friend -- the First Friend, as Bush operatives have dubbed him. "Soul mates" is how others refer to them. If Secretary of State James Baker is known as the friend with his own agenda and ambitions, Nick Brady has come to be regarded as his guileless counterpart, solely here to serve "the boss." They talk on the phone almost daily, Bush and Brady -- and certainly not just about economic policy. They talk about tennis, government appointments, family, John Tower and, of course, the budget. One thing Brady insists they haven't rehashed is the secretary's early difficulties at Treasury. Still, what they both must have known was that if the hammering had continued, it could have crippled his effectiveness. Within two weeks of the S&L user fee leak, Brady presented a reasonably well received $100 billion-plus bailout package that last week passed the Senate and is being considered by the House. Last month Brady also offered his own plan to relieve Third World debt by having the banks forgive a portion of it. Critics grudgingly concede both plans are substantive, and Brady boosters insist that is no accident. Says one Treasury official: "You can look at his style or you can look at the bottom line." In any case, the bleeding has abated. "Basically, the guy has a political tin ear," says a top GOP strategist who has worked closely with Brady. "But in the campaign, you saw a change, where he would say, 'Well, wait a minute, how will this look and how will this play?' And I think you're seeing some of that awareness evolving at Treasury." One CEO of a major banking corporation offers this assessment of Brady's tenure thus far: "I've got to tell you, when he first took over from Baker, I thought to myself, 'This guy doesn't know what he's doing.' He briefed me on the Third World debt plan and he was fumbling, not sure of the facts. He seemed less sure of himself ... But that being said -- he does wear well over time. "When the debt plan is put together -- boom -- it ends up being okay," continues the executive. "They are the same -- Brady and Bush. You know, wealthy, upper class and so nice and polite, you never know what they know." Indeed, they are very much the same, these two men, from a world where athletic competition is taught as a metaphor for everyday living; where self-aggrandizement is frowned upon, and where nice guys are supposed to finish first. But both have another side. When Brady's firstborn was rejected by Yale, a family alma mater for three generations, Brady was enraged at the school. "There wasn't a soul among his friends that didn't know how he felt," said one. Yet Brady did not indicate his disappointment to his son Nick Jr. In fact, by the time it was all over, Nick, now 35, says he was convinced his father preferred that he go to Trinity College in Hartford. Brady fought campaign manager Atwater's Southern strategy, according to sources, arguing that it was senseless to use up resources in one region. He drove Atwater crazy. But when the plan proved successful -- effectively locking up the nomination for Bush on Super Tuesday -- Atwater received a two-page handwritten note from Brady congratulating him. A familiar Bush gesture. Brady and Bush even look alike; if he weren't a fourth-generation Irish Catholic, Nick Brady would be the archetypal WASP. And as with George Bush, it has been asked whether a man of Brady's upbringing and means can truly understand those who have not been so favored. "It's the old George Bush question," Brady says during a later interview in his Treasury office. "I just never had the concern voiced to me. I hear people saying 'he's rich' and that sort of thing. But most of what I have I earned. "There is no way of knowing what it's like to have to eat dog food or to have to sleep eight kids in one bed. I don't think you have any better idea of what that is than I do. It doesn't mean that we don't both have the same feelings. It can't be that I know everything about somebody who was brought up in a ghetto ... But I read about it, seen plenty of pictures, plays, television on the subject. But have I been there? Of course, I haven't." Brady grew up in Far Hills, N.J., on a 4,000-acre family "farm," where he and his three siblings ultimately returned to live and raise their own offspring. (The family holding company recently divested itself of about 2,000 acres, with each sibling carving out his or her own 10- to 20-acre plot.) At Yale, young Brady is remembered as the consummate jock who, like Bush, never met a sport he didn't like. He was captain of the squash team, played on the tennis team and enjoyed hockey. "He never saw sports as just games when we were growing up," says son Anthony Brady, 33. "He always believed it was about life. A win helps your confidence; a loss teaches you how to lose gracefully." After getting an MBA from Harvard, Brady made his career at the only place he ever worked on Wall Street: Dillon, Read & Co. From a long line of freewheeling financiers, Brady, with his one-job career, was a bit of an anomaly on the family tree. The clan fortune was made from a variety of sources, but the big earner was Brady's great-grandfather Anthony. It was Anthony's parents who first left Ireland during the potato famine, stopped over in France and ended up in Troy, N.Y.; and it was Anthony's good fortune to meet Thomas Edison and become a major backer of what would be Consolidated Edison. Anthony's son James (Nicholas Brady's grandfather) contributed handsomely to the development of Maxwell Motor Co., which became Chrysler Corp. Brady's father James -- no 9-to-5er -- helped found Purolator Courier Corp. If Brady's ancestors were risk-takers, Nick Brady in many ways became successful by virtue of all the deals he wouldn't make. At Dillon Read, he was often referred to as Mr. Outside, an executive who may not have known one young employee from the other, but who could get any CEO on the phone from Tokyo to L.A. He once advised a client not to buy a railroad. And another client of 10 years, Howard (Pete) Love, chairman of the $8 billion National Intergroup Inc., says: "He's never been driven by a transaction -- and as you know, you don't get paid if there's no deal." In interviews today, Brady is quite candid about his feelings toward the Wall Street of the '80s, a place where multibillion-dollar deals sometimes seem to take on a Monopoly quality. "When the best and brightest of this country are spending all their time on financial engineering, you're rearranging the deck chairs -- rejiggering corporations, just changing their shape, instead of laying long-term plans," he says. "When I went into the business it was professional, where people had pride and standards." Brady rose over 30 years to become cochairman of Dillon Read, resigning last year. He is asked if he believes he was helped by his family position. "I might have made it sooner {without family background}," he says. "I might have had an idea ... that coming from a family with a name, it was going to help me get ahead ... {It} did not." Nick Brady was determined that his daughter Kim, 28, and his sons would never make the same miscalculation. "He was real big on manual labor," says son Anthony. "We were always working on farms, milking cows, digging ditches -- the kind of work that makes you collapse at the end of the day. And he'd just smile and say, 'So you don't think that's what you want to do forever? Better work a little harder and figure out what it is you do want.' " Contrary to what is fast becoming lore, Brady and Bush were neither childhood friends in Kennebunkport, Maine, nor in the same class at Yale. While Brady and George Bush's brother Jonathan had been acquainted for years, George and Nick actually met in 1975 at a tennis match. They clicked instantly. Says Brady: "It's probably strange to say -- but the same things he thinks are funny, I think are funny. The same things I think are serious problems, he does. I enjoy being around him -- how can I explain it?" Dr. Burton Lee III, the new White House physician and a friend of both, recalls a dinner he gave at the River Club in New York around 1977: "I'll never forget it ... I sat them at a table together, thinking it would be fun. Well, neither of them moved all night. They must have sat there talking for six or seven hours straight." In fact, it wasn't even a year after the two met that Bush confided his ambitions to Brady. By 1979 Brady was running New Jersey for Bush's first try at the presidency. Three years later he was rewarded when Gov. Tom Kean, a friend of both men, appointed Brady to the U.S. Senate to fill the seat vacated by Harrison Williams, convicted in the Abscam scandal. (The friendship even crossed generational lines; Kim Brady worked for Barbara Bush for five years.) And after a trying 1984 campaign that often pitted Bush against the first female vice presidential nominee, Geraldine Ferraro, it was Brady to whom he turned. "He was tired," says Brady. "He said, 'You know, this campaigning is tough stuff. I don't know whether I want to do this with the rest of my life.' " According to several people close to the men, Brady bolstered him during a Camp David tennis outing, and advised: "You don't have to make a decision about 1988 now -- just let us keep the door open, put together a structure." Soon Bush was telling people that Brady was the only person authorized to speak for him on the subject of 1988. Brady in effect put together the campaign team, with Jim Baker guiding from the sidelines. Campaign aides affectionately call Brady a "royal pain," the graybeard of the operation who monitored their every move, from the campaign budget to strategy. "I remember getting Nick Brady phone calls in '85 just checking in," recalls Rich Bond, who ended up being the campaign political director. "It wasn't until '86 that I realized this guy was actively assessing personalities and talent ... {and} passing his assessments on to the VP." Recalls Craig Fuller, Bush's former chief of staff, "I got regular calls asking me if I had made enough time in the vice president's schedule for Roger Ailes." Brady continues to watch out for George Bush -- even outside his Treasury jurisdiction. Several party strategists have said that Brady was not pleased with White House Chief of Staff John Sununu's handling of the failed John Tower appointment, and blamed Sununu for the delay in other White House appointments. "He didn't feel Sununu was serving the president effectively," said a source close to the White House. "... And you don't want Nick Brady to be unhappy when it comes to George Bush." Nick Brady has settled into Treasury as if it were one of his four (New Jersey, Bahamas, New York, Maryland) homes. A photograph of his father sits on a side table in his office, as does a portrait of his mother and sisters. And just the other day, one could find Kitty Brady fussing with flower vases in the grand North Lobby as if it were her own living room. "Nick doesn't like me to mess around here too much," she says. A little later at tea, Kitty Brady offers little in the way of insight about their personal relationship, though she does open up a bit when talk turns to her husband's bumpy start in the Bush administration. "It really upset him," she says. "It was the first time he's ever been criticized like this. I said, 'Nick, if you're going to be in this town you have got to get a thick skin because lots of people are going to think you're not doing a good job. You just have to do what's right.' " There are several theories about Brady's inauspicious beginnings in the Cabinet, starting with the fact that he was appointed last August, when Baker left to take over the Bush campaign. Policy was slow to come because, says one aide, "he didn't feel he had a mandate until the election." And after the Bush victory, Brady spent at least as much time assisting the new president in staffing the government as he did on his own backyard. It's also true that Nick Brady simply doesn't view life through a political prism. Beat reporters complain that he doesn't quite know what to do with them, and although he has improved somewhat, he is an awkward public speaker. Just recently, on NBC's "Meet the Press," he referred to drug czar William Bennett as "Jack Bennett." And as with the president, his casual manner of expressing himself on official matters has at times served him poorly. "Careful with words? I probably have become more so because you don't get a second chance to say, 'I didn't quite mean it that way.' You're hooked with that -- you just have to change to accommodate it -- go a little slower." Perhaps most important, he suffered from the comparison with Baker. Some of the differences are refreshing: One would never catch Baker padding around his office in a shabby sweater, or sitting in meetings with legs thrown over the side of a chair. But where Baker followed every nuance through the agency, Brady abhors detail. "Baker took over a room, set his agenda and then answered the questions the way he wanted," offers a senior aide on the House Banking Committee. "Brady is more reactive. He won't answer the question if he doesn't know ... leaving the impression he didn't have a handle." With characteristic diffidence, Brady refuses to take issue with the Baker comparison. "Take any number of issues," he says. "Jim Baker has great familiarity and knowledge -- I don't have the knowledge ... {but} I will. I can't get greatly exercised over the fact I may give the impression I may not know all the details. I don't. And Jim does ... You can't do it the first four months you're here." What he can do, he repeats, is get the job done. "My solution is that I am going to face the problems before us," he says. "In the long run, if we solve the problems before us in a way that is good for this country, it doesn't matter if I committed some malapropisms along the way ... At any rate, I'm going to do what the president wants me to do."