David Beckwith has a tough job, some would say the toughest in town: trying to turn around the image of the most ridiculed public figure in Washington.

After 16 months as Dan Quayle's press secretary, the lanky, intense former Time correspondent never figured he'd still be struggling to put the best face on the vice president's misstatements and misadventures -- such as, most recently, his very public purchase of an anatomically explicit male doll in Chile.

Which may be why, when Dan Quayle was invited to appear at the White House Press Photographers Association's annual dinner last Thursday, Beckwith saw it as another opportunity to improve his boss's standing with the news media.

The dominant joke from Quayle after dinner: a little self-deprecating humor to deflect the lingering doll problem. Not only did the vice president rib the "photo dogs" for missing the opportunity to photograph him buying the doll, he jokingly added that they also missed the moment on his recent trip to England when he "showed that doll to Margaret Thatcher."

The photo dogs howled. Job done.

"The whole idea," says the 47-year-old Beckwith, "is to show up and be a good sport... . It's disarming."

Since Day One, Beckwith's approach to solving Quayle's media problems has been to push the vice president to the front lines to face his critics. Prominent liberal political columnists who have lambasted Quayle, irreverent gossip columnists and even the smallest editorial boards at the tiniest of newspapers all have gotten time with Dan.

"I realized that we had a person here who had been seriously underestimated by my colleagues," says Beckwith. "His main press problem ... was that very few of the reporters {at the Republican National Convention} in New Orleans knew him personally. What we wanted to do was get him exposed under more normal circumstances."

But as the months go by and the jokes keep coming from the late-night talk show hosts, Beckwith's frustration over Quayle's image problems has become painfully evident to the reporters assigned to cover the vice president.

It's not his relentless pro-Quayle stance that Beckwith's former colleagues find perplexing. After all, political loyalty is a prerequisite of this job. What baffles those who once knew Beckwith as a journalist with an irreverent eye is the press secretary's sometimes strident and overzealous reaction to what he sees as belittling portrayals of Quayle.

Access, they maintain, is not the only strategy Beckwith has pursued aggressively.

Reporters, editors and Washington bureau chiefs cite intemperate telephone calls -- sometimes at home -- and withering attacks from Beckwith after unflattering Quayle stories appear. The press secretary even confronted San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos on "Larry King Live" after the mayor called Quayle's hastily arranged post-earthquake trip to San Francisco a "publicity stunt."

Beckwith is unapologetic: "I don't think that many people have taken more of a pounding in the media than Dan Quayle. And I think generally that an aggressive defense of him is appropriate and warranted."

Quayle's chief of staff, William Kristol, agrees. "Having a patsy as a press secretary," he says, would not serve the vice president well.

Others suggest, however, that it may be the press secretary himself who feels he has much on the line.

"Everything becomes the six-day Arab-Israeli war with him," says one scribe who has known Beckwith for 10 years, "and I think it's because he really believed he could turn this guy around in six months."

"I think he's feeling the pressure of being the spokesman for a guy whose press is atrocious," says Thomas DeFrank, Newsweek White House correspondent and Beckwith's close friend. "Let's face it, it's not fair for anyone to think that David can fix Quayle's image. But I'm sure that some of his new colleagues -- and maybe even his boss -- wonder why he hasn't."

Not just the boss, but apparently even the boss's wife. Marilyn Quayle has always harbored an instinctive distrust of the news media, and the distrust naturally extends to Beckwith. One who knows her well says she was wary of Beckwith from the start, and is not all that confident his strategy of access has done much for her husband's image.

The numbers could certainly support that view. Beckwith had hoped that the more the press and the public saw of Quayle, the more their opinion of him would improve. But so far, that hasn't happened.

While a poll by Market Opinion Research, a Republican firm, showed that over the first three months of this year Quayle's job approval rating jumped from 39 percent to 45 percent, other polls have not been as encouraging.

A March Gallup poll reported that 54 percent of the public did not believe Quayle qualified to be president and 49 percent think Bush should pick a new running mate in '92. Gallup also reported a 46 percent job approval rating for the vice president. In May of '89, Gallup reported that 52 percent of the public believed Quayle not qualified to be president, and 43 percent approved of the way he was doing his job.

Taking into account Gallup's margin of error, a spokesman for the firm says that there has been little, if any, statistical change in Quayle's standing for nearly a year. By contrast, George Bush's average approval rating for his first year in office was 73 percent, 11 points higher than in Ronald Reagan's first year, according to Washington Post-ABC polls.

"I'm surprised {Beckwith} has handled the pressure as well as he has," observes Owen Ullman, another friend and a political reporter for Knight-Ridder Newspapers. "More than a year later, it must be frustrating to see that Quayle is still thought of as a joke... . And it's frustrating because Dave thinks, 'We're meeting the press halfway by making Quayle available for greater scrutiny. Is the press meeting us halfway with fair stories?' "

In at least three instances in the past year, Beckwith obviously did not think the press met the vice president halfway, and he let the news organizations involved know it in ways they found unusually heavy-handed.

During the course of Quayle's second foreign trip in late April and early May of 1989, New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd filed some "notebooks" -- feature items in column form about Quayle's activities. According to two reporters on the trip, Beckwith became angry that Dowd was reporting Quayle's gaffes -- describing the Samoan people as "happy campers," for instance -- as prominently as his official business. He berated her in public on several occasions, they said, and at one point, she left a dinner distraught because of Beckwith's open hostility toward her.

Beckwith responds that "notebooks" simply do not tell the whole story of a trip, and points out that he kept the disagreement between Dowd and himself, never complaining to her editors.

In another incident involving the Times, Beckwith complained last October about what he labeled an inaccurate column written by chief Washington correspondent R.W. Apple Jr. This time Beckwith called the Times's Washington bureau chief, Howell Raines, and harsh words were exchanged. A key issue was whether Apple had taken certain liberties in analyzing Quayle quotes that he obtained from another newspaper. Apple says he stands by the quotes, and added that since he was writing an opinion column, he was free to interpret Quayle's remarks as he wished.

The Beckwith-Raines confrontation led to a lunch between the two, in which Raines expressed displeasure that Beckwith was not treating Times reporters professionally.

"I think it's fair to say there were complaints from David that were highly unusual both in their style and their substance," said Raines. "I have not encountered other press secretaries who have conducted business in this manner. That said, I think in fairness I should add that our relationship has since been amicable and I cannot detect any punitive behavior on his part."

For his part, Beckwith says his intent was only to "encourage the Times to talk to us" before future articles about the vice president.

"If I wanted a correction I would have written to New York," he says. "I escalate slowly."

In February, Newsweek published what Beckwith regarded as an unflattering Quayle story under the byline of Beckwith's friend DeFrank and staff correspondent Ann McDaniel.

While not elaborating on the specifics of the incident, Newsweek bureau chief Evan Thomas said: "Before the piece was published, Beckwith called us over and over again. I can see why he was concerned about it, but he wouldn't leave us alone."

Following publication, Beckwith complained repeatedly to DeFrank about the piece. For a while, the friends were not on speaking terms because of it, thereby straining the bureau's relationship with the vice president's office. The strain had personal repercussions too. DeFrank even worried that Beckwith would refuse to serve as the best man at his wedding earlier this month.

Beckwith says there were inaccuracies in the DeFrank piece, but says he won't discuss them out of friendship for DeFrank. DeFrank says there were no inaccuracies. The men have since reconciled -- in time for Beckwith to be best man.

Five weeks after The Washington Post Magazine published an account of "A Week in the Life of Vice President Quayle," Beckwith complained to The Post about the story -- and about its author, freelancer William Prochnau.

At issue, among other things, was an anecdote strongly implying that Quayle had decided abruptly to go to San Francisco following the earthquake because a British reporter had made an issue of it. Beckwith and other Quayle staffers say Quayle had consulted with George Bush and others about the decision.

In the course of their discussion about the piece, which ran in January, Beckwith told Washington Post Managing Editor Leonard Downie that Prochnau, a staff reporter at The Post until 1985, hadn't taken notes on the trip. He also told Post Magazine Editor Bob Thompson that Prochnau had been seen drinking with two stewardesses in a hotel bar during Quayle's last event in Portland, Ore.

Prochnau says he did choose to skip the last event but was having a Perrier with his sister-in-law and his 84-year-old mother, who live in Portland. "My mother was flattered," said Prochnau of the references to stewardesses.

He also said he took 118 legal-size pages of notes.

Beckwith concedes that he "mishandled" the Prochnau incident. "I should have written an immediate letter ... and demanded that it be printed," he says. He also explained that he got "bad" information about the episode at the bar from an advance man.

Beckwith also asked that the following response be included: "I inquired about the drinking because Prochnau had spent the evening in the bar and missed the motorcade," he says. "We had to dispatch a police car to bring him to the airport." Prochnau says he missed the motorcade because it left the hotel earlier than scheduled.

Downie said that "it is very important to us that anyone we write about feel that they can take issue with the facts and fairness of the story, and if we make mistakes, we address them." But, he said, "I found it extraordinarily unusual behavior for a public official to be making accusations of a personal nature which also in this case are false."

In response to all the above incidents, Beckwith says that he never gets upset with "tone or slant" but only with what he says are factual inaccuracies "or lack of reportorial diligence."

Quayle may give Beckwith more than his share of problems, but his defenders say it's only fair to look at the historic problems of the job. Bush's former press secretary, Pete Teeley, maintains that for a vice president, bad press "comes with the territory... . Your every word is measured and you're always forced into a defensive posture."

Although White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater has privately worried about the repercussions of Beckwith squabbling with high-profile journalists, publicly he cites the difficulties of the job he held himself for two years as then-Vice President Bush's spokesman.

"The big problem that any vice presidential press secretary has is that you can't really shape stories through substance," says Fitzwater. "You never have your fate in your hands."

Albert Eisele, who was press secretary to Vice President Walter Mondale, agrees that "virtually nothing a vice president does makes any difference unless it's in a negative context... . No one cares if he does a good job."

Against these odds, there are many who believe Beckwith is doing a good job.

"At least you can deal with him," says Associated Press reporter Joan Mower. "You can argue with him -- he doesn't duck. I'd rather have David Beckwith than a Stepford press secretary."

Washington Post Personalities columnist Chuck Conconi says that Beckwith has been "good-natured" regardless of how personal or embarrassing Conconi's inquiry. And to Conconi's surprise, he got an unsolicited invitation to a 35-minute private meeting with Quayle.

"He's certainly cooperative when it comes to getting time with Quayle," says John Mashek of the Boston Globe. "He has to figure that the more he pushes Quayle out front, the tougher the stories are going to be. He's been on the other side himself."

Indeed, Beckwith was just wrapping up his campaign coverage of Bush, and preparing to move to South Africa for Time with his wife and two children, when he was approached about working for Quayle -- with a personal nudge from Bush himself, White House insiders say.

With the exception of a couple of years when he was finishing law school at the University of Texas in the late '60s, Beckwith has been a political and legal reporter for the better part of 25 years. One of his first assignments for Time in the early '70s was to cover the Watergate hearings. He left the magazine briefly in 1978 to become the first managing editor of Legal Times. Back at Time he covered mostly politics and campaigns, including the Reagan White House and the Bush campaign, where he became a favorite of the candidate's.

Beckwith says he had no misgivings about going to work for Quayle and, astonishingly, no personal opinion of the then-vice president-elect. His files for Time had emphasized Quayle as a political factor on the Republican ticket, as opposed to Quayle's personal shortcomings.

"I probably had an opinion, but it was like everyone else's," he says. "We thought he was a drag on the ticket. I have since changed my mind... . When he was appointed as running mate, Bush was 15 to 17 points down in the polls and the ticket won by 8."

Beckwith also makes the point that Quayle diverted Democratic resources in attacks on him that "proved to be irrelevant to voters' choices."

He says the one thing he worried about in accepting the job was how it would affect his relationship with his former colleagues. "I knew I'd have to be careful about what I said," he says, "but it hasn't been as big a problem as I thought."

What has been a bit of an adjustment, he says, is mastering the art of political patience.

"One thing I didn't consider was the instant gratification you get from journalism," he says. "In a few days or a few weeks, you can produce a story. This job is much more of a long-range job and you really have to be prepared to play a long-term game."