Bruce S. Gelb left behind the $936,500-a-year vice chairmanship of Bristol-Myers Co. to take over the United States Information Agency for his old prep school hero, George Bush. But projecting America's image around the globe, let alone surviving the Washington bureaucracy, is proving to be a whole lot harder than marketing Clairol, Drano and Excedrin.

In just 14 months at the USIA, Gelb has amassed a record of criticisms and embarrassments some presidential appointees take years to accumulate. Among the legions of generally competent, serious and unobtrusive Cabinet secretaries and agency directors, Gelb stands out as something of a loose cannon.

He has been faulted inside the agency for globe-trotting a full 20 percent of his first year, for being ineffective in his dealings with Congress and the Office of Management and Budget and for changing his mind -- twice -- on where to make budget cutbacks, and losing a fight with a canny subordinate in the process.

Outside the USIA, he has taken heat for sponsoring the visit of a group of Russian nationalists that included several writers who signed an infamous letter containing antisemitic material, for squandering the agency's international television network resources, and even for permitting the agency to dedicate its charity drive to one of its most bitter critics, the late Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.).

Soon after arriving in Washington, ridicule and opposition forced him to abandon a plan to finance Chinese students' visits in the United States by selling USIA/Voice of America T-shirts. Then Gelb raised eyebrows by proposing a tax on all credit card purchases when the administration was locked into a pledge of no new taxes -- and by breaching protocol in making the suggestion not to congressional Republicans but to two Democratic senators, Claiborne Pell (R.I.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.).

He defended his tax plan as "just part of what happens when you have a creative mind and you're looking at sources of funds," and appears amazed at the criticism.

"I've had a remarkably smooth transition," he said recently of his rocky first year. "I had to learn a new language of acronyms, but what we do here is not so strange. It's like running organizations I've run before. This agency is half the size of the people I managed at Bristol-Myers. I have taken it very seriously. When you represent the U.S. government, you have to know what you're talking about."

Perhaps with that standard in mind, said several senior administration officials, recently the White House tried for weeks to find a new job for the USIA director. The search concentrated on an ambassadorship of high enough status to save Gelb from embarrassment. The officials described what one called a "chain reaction deal," in which a string of ambassadors would move, making room at the end of the sequence for Gelb.

But Gelb's future is a delicate matter, one official observed, because "this is a person George Bush cares about."

Asked if the White House was searching for a new job for Gelb, Presidential Personnel Director Chase Untermeyer said, "He is staying put." Untermeyer declined to comment on whether a search had been put on hold. Gelb "enjoys the support of the president," he said.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Edward J. Derwinski said he had heard rumors about his being asked to replace Gelb at the USIA, but "to my knowledge" he was not being considered for the job. "I presume in government you do what you are asked to do by the big boss," he said. "I'm happy where I am. I've got more business to do here."

Gelb acknowledges that he had a learning curve that was "very steep" when he took over the agency in April 1989. The USIA, with 9,231 employees and a $926.9 million budget, oversees the Voice of America, Radio and TV Marti, the Worldnet international television network, and magazines and scholarly journals, as well as foreign libraries and a large, but shrinking, program of educational and cultural exchanges.

Several months ago, when USIA was facing budget cuts, Gelb said: "No American businessman could understand the byzantine nature of the budget process. I'm now getting a 51 percent level of understanding. In hindsight, I should have rented a room on Capitol Hill for the past nine months -- but I had to find out what's going on around the world."

While Frank A. Sieverts, spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, describes Gelb as a "calming figure, reflective of his fellow Yale graduate, Bush," and Rep. Dante Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, calls him "direct, enthusiastic and receptive," some administration colleagues and conservatives are less charitable.

Allan Baker, a retired USIA employee who has followed the agency closely as president of the Friends of the VOA, said he finds himself "not impressed" with Gelb. "He may be a kind of a caretaker. The previous director, for all his faults, had a lot of ideas. Gelb doesn't seem to have any positions, positive or negative."

"The USIA has been disappointingly slow to develop comprehensive program and resource proposals," the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy said in a critical report on the status of planning in the agency. "There doesn't seem to be the strategic planning in the USIA there is supposed to be -- to seize the day," said Edwin J. Feulner Jr., chairman and president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, but "I have a seat-of-the-pants feeling that he's doing better lately. He's been minding the store."

In fairness, Gelb has presided over USIA just as Communist governments have been collapsing throughout Eastern Europe, events that have made many question the utility of an agency set up to help fight the nation's propaganda wars.

Just last month, the agency's advisory committee said it was "deeply concerned" over the agency's "disappointingly slow" response to the drama in Europe. The National Security Council has been conducting a review of what the agency ought to be doing. And members of Congress and others are questioning whether all the agency's programs, from the 43 separate language broadcasts of the Voice of America to scholarly publications like "Problems of Communism," are as necessary or relevant today as they once were. Not all the criticism of Gelb is institutional. The strange or impolitic things he says have left many of his listeners stunned. At a reception during the recent summit to promote the idea of a new, independent Soviet-American university, for instance, Gelb told a reporter that the Soviets would benefit economically from American business education because "the vipers, the bloodsuckers, the middlemen -- that's what they need. That's what needs to be rehabilitated in the Soviet Union. That's what makes our kind of a country click!"

During official meetings, Gelb has annoyed or embarrassed his colleagues with comments so inappropriate or long-winded that their eyes roll.

At a National Security Council meeting during a crisis in the Philippines, Gelb took the floor to say -- as he recalled it -- "my son was getting engaged to a young girl whose parents are very substantial people in the Philippines, very respected people in the Philippines, and that my son's prospective mother-in-law is a friend of Mrs. Aquino."

Gelb said, "I said it merely as a piece of information at a time when we were talking about the Philippines."

Recently, during a meeting called by deputy national security adviser Robert Gates to coordinate governmental dealings with the Soviet Union, Gelb launched into a lengthy defense of his agency's foreign-visitor program, speaking far beyond his allotted time as others at the table fidgeted.

By one account, USIA wasn't Gelb's first choice of appointment from Bush. The former number two officer at Bristol-Myers under his highly respected brother, Richard L. Gelb, Bruce Gelb raised money for Bush in both the 1980 and 1988 campaigns, and after the election two years ago, he expressed an interest in running the Commerce Department or in becoming ambassador to Canada or France, according to a senior administration official. Instead, in one of Bush's first sub-Cabinet appointments, he got the USIA.

Gelb's loyalty to Bush was forged at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., nearly 50 years ago, when an older classmate, hazing the 14-year-old Gelb, ordered him to move a huge overstuffed couch. When Gelb said he couldn't lift it any more, the bully put a hammerlock on him.

Suddenly, Gelb told a Bush biographer years later, he heard a voice saying, "Leave the kid alone."

"That was George Bush," Gelb recalled in an interview with The Post. "You don't forget people who helped you."

Yet Gelb's long-standing personal ties to the president have been of relatively little use to him in Washington, at least by comparison with his predecessor, Charles Z. Wick. The husband of Nancy Reagan's best friend, Wick didn't hesitate to use his entree to Ronald Reagan, according to a former colleague. Somewhat defensively Gelb says, "I cannot re-create my wife to be the best friend of Barbara Bush, and I haven't used the approach of calling up the president {and saying} give money to ... my agency."

Access aside, some of Gelb's subordinates wonder how a man who rose so high in American industry could have so much trouble managing the agency. Part of the answer appears to be that at Bristol-Myers, Gelb was always part of a family team, one that originally included his father, Lawrence M. Gelb, as well as his older brother.

"In one sense I was always in the shadow of my brother," Gelb said in an interview. "He was born 2 1/2 years before I was. ... I can tell you we complemented each other. ... It isn't easy working for your brother," he said. "The fact that when you {have} a brother who's your boss you know that everybody is just waiting to say, 'He got away with that because his brother is the boss.' "

John D. Macomber, a former Bristol-Myers board member who is now chairman of the Export-Import Bank in Washington, said Gelb performed his corporate job "very well," handling "thousands of employees, hundreds of products and lots of earnings in a truly competitive market in consumer products."

At 63, Gelb looks the part of the million-dollar-a-year corporate executive he so recently was. Tall and trim, he and his wife, Lueza, who earned a doctorate from Columbia University after she had raised four children, maintain an active social life both here and in New York.

"He's a sane and sensible kind of person who is a rare commodity in Washington," said Senate aide Sieverts.

Although Gelb was a well-traveled business executive when he took over USIA, he spent an average of one day a week outside the country in his first year on the job. "The mission of the agency is only overseas," he said.

The trips attracted criticism, not only because they were so frequent, but because their connection to official USIA business was not always apparent.

In South Africa, for example, Gelb met with local officials of Bristol-Myers. Robert R. Gosende, director of the USIA Office of African Affairs, who traveled with him, defends the meeting as routine. Gelb was interested in "Bristol-Myers as an example of corporate behavior ... housing, education ... he was listening," Gosende said.

Gelb pointed out that he talked to a wide variety of South Africans. "One of my roles is to assess the opinions of foreign publics," he said, "all kinds of publics ... that would be helpful to the State Department and others who have responsibility for foreign policy."

While in Africa, Gelb traveled to Rwanda and climbed the mountain featured in "Gorillas in the Mist," the movie about Dian Fossey. He defended the trip as a visit to a one-person USIA post and said he "took a day of vacation ... and paid for it all myself."

In South America he traveled with eight bodyguards into the Huallaga Valley in Peru, the first senior U.S. official to do so. He said the trip helped him understand the two new mandates his agency has been given under President Bush: protecting the environment and fighting the drug war. In the valley, he said, he examined the use of a controversial new herbicide on coca plants.

While Gelb was taking his overseas trips, things were not going well on the budget front, according to critics. A House committee accustomed to hearing from Wick or his aides virtually every day heard nothing from Gelb for long periods, according to a congressional aide. Gelb's lowest moment to date, many say, came early this year, soon after it became clear that the agency would have to cut something to live within its budget.

As Gelb left on one of his trips, this one to Romania, East Germany and Spain, he okayed the elimination of six of the 43 foreign-language broadcasts provided by the VOA. When he saw the inevitable news stories, he hit the roof, canceling the cutbacks and trying to fire the VOA director, Richard Carlson, himself a well-connected Republican.

The dispute triggered an unusual public intervention by the White House. Untermeyer, the presidential personnel director, said Carlson "is doing a good job in a difficult budgetary situation" and "no change is under consideration ... for any job at VOA."

"If Gelb has a flaw," said Sieverts, "it's that he's not at his best in mixing it up with a tough political infighter."

When Gelb canceled the cutbacks of the foreign-language broadcasts, he announced that the money instead would be taken from the radio construction accounts for the VOA. But after a two-hour meeting with the broadcast engineers, he told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee he had ruled out that source as well. The money is now scheduled to come from exhibits and publications, but another $2.5 million must still come from "a number of other places currently under discussion with OMB," according to a USIA spokesman.

"I have always thought that I understood the basic nerve structure, bone structure, blood chemistry of what makes businesses tick, and they are not that different in many respects from government," Gelb told the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy in January. "But I have been overwhelmed and amazed, confused, and it is all because of one part of this wonderful government of ours. And that is a thing called the budget process."

Dealing with the touchy appropriations committees has not always gone smoothly, either. Two hours into his first House Appropriations Committee hearing, held nearly a year after Gelb took office, Rep. Joseph D. Early (D-Mass.) interrupted the USIA director to say, "Your answers are too long; you go on and on."

Pressed for budget cuts, Gelb suggested getting rid of "300 people in Washington who are not doing but 10 percent of what they're supposed to do." Then, when the startled subcommittee chairman tried to follow up on this astonishing statement -- an agency head admitting that he might not need all his employees -- Gelb apparently realized his blunder and asked the subcommittee chairman "not to even think" of cutting personnel accounts. He said later he was speaking metaphorically in the first case.

Rep. Neal Smith (D-Iowa), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Gelb's budget, offered a few classic phrases of faint praise for the USIA director: "He's very enthusiastic and very wrapped up in his subject. ... He did go on at length. ... I work with whoever's there."

"There's nothing like hindsight, but I wish I'd spent more time pounding the corridors of Congress," Gelb said. "I didn't think that was the role of the director of USIA. I thought I was supposed to run a 9,000-man and -woman worldwide organization."