How lovely, how American: On an October afternoon, here in William Kristol's part of the vice president's offices, a window is open and a breeze rustles in the potted plants. Things have an incidental quality -- a football under a desk, a purse dropped on the floor behind a chair. High ceilings give a sense of oddly impersonal coziness.

This is power in Washington, something a little sad and temporary about it, particularly at election time and particularly for Republicans. They never quite seem to belong in Washington. Their offices have a borrowed feeling. (By contrast, Democrats always act as if they'd been born owning Washington, as if power were something akin to the family silver.)

Bill Kristol, at 39, is the vice president's chief of staff, the man known as "Dan Quayle's brain." He gets credited for a lot of whatever respect Quayle has acquired in the past four years. He is a conservative. He has spent four years turning Quayle into a spokesman for the causes that George Bush has paid only lip service to: SDI, the Competitiveness Council, legal reform, deregulation, congressional term limits, support for Israel.

And for the election -- how could it go wrong? -- family values. Wasn't this campaign plank sawed out of nothing riskier than Mom, apple pie and baby kissing? Well, no, as it turned out. There's a difference between standing on a plank and walking it. If the Republicans lose, will Washington spend years saying "family values" with a snicker, the way it said "malaise" and "lust in my heart" for years after Carter lost?

For Kristol, it won't matter. Other Republicans may be Xeroxing resumes, but even if Kristol has backed a losing issue in a losing campaign, he still looks good. One man's irony is another man's no-lose situation. It's part of his persona -- he seems to be all future, no past, something of the eternal brilliant son about him.

He half-curls up in an armchair near the pictures of his wife and three children. No young-Republican suspenders, no Mont Blanc pen, all business. He is a short, smart, witty New Yorker, a Harvard professor who got Quayle to start quoting Plato, Machiavelli and the Talmud, at least until reports that one journalist had discovered Quayle didn't know the source of Plato's most famous passage, the parable of the cave.

Kristol looks a lot like his father, Irving Kristol, the New York intellectual who started out a Trotskyite and ended up being known as "the godfather of neoconservativism."

Bill Kristol is both intense and cheerful -- he has a way of frowning and smiling at the same time. He also has a way of looking away and muttering that makes you think he is preoccupied, shy, tired or doing some kind of power move.

He is muttering now about the Redskins and Washington fans.

"I don't like the Redskins," he says. "There are all these people who come to Washington ... are not native Washingtonians ... have no reason to be Redskin fans, but they become these rabid Redskin fans ... rooters ... and there's this sort of phony pretense that this is their home team... ."

How contrarian. Then again, a lot of conservatives are contrarians, and a lot of them make it a principle to defy things Washingtonian as they attempt to induce some sort of withering away of the state, which may or may not include the Redskins.

What's hard for some liberals to understand is that conservatives see themselves as not just contrarians, but also as underdogs, martyrs, the last gentlemen, beacons of truth in the gathering fog of political correctness, the last bastions against the "cultural elite." And they feel this way even after 12 years in the White House -- it seems that no amount of success could ever erase that sense of opposition and minority.

Kristol says: "There are huge segments in American society that we not only don't control, we barely have a foothold in. You know, culture, the entertainment industry, the mass media, the universities."

These are the "cultural elite." The phrase has a lineage. Its direct ancestor is the "adversary culture" that Kristol's father has written about -- Quayle even used "adversary culture" in defending his "family values" campaign. Meanwhile, "cultural elite" has prompted talk of antisemitism.

"The notion that you can't criticize Hollywood or intellectuals because a lot of them are Jewish is really ridiculous," says Kristol. "I've heard that charge, just once or twice in the last month or so, but it honestly never crossed my mind, it's a genuine red herring."

All of which might never have become a major issue if it hadn't been for the family values thing, which was injected into the neural substrate of the electorate by Quayle's attack on television's "Murphy Brown" for glamorizing single motherhood. This provoked charges that Quayle was bad-mouthing single mothers and using "code words" to create a "wedge issue," as Quayle noted in September, when the furor over family values forced him to give another speech defending the Murphy Brown speech. By that time, the Republican campaigners were backing away from the whole business. People wondered: Who came up with the Murphy Brown idea?

"There was some back and forth about whose idea it was," Kristol says. "I don't believe it was my idea to put it in, but I had no problem with it, either."

Why should he? It was a wonderful conservative twofer, this attack on a liberal television show about the liberal media. What sweeter song for conservative ears than the scalded-dog screaming of Hollywood's cultural elite? Wouldn't Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch USA love it? By August, at the convention, the party's right wing -- the Phyllis Schlaflys, Pat Robertsons and Pat Buchanans -- had picked up the theme. Finally! Anti-communism was dead, and free-market conservatism had lost some charm in America's endless recession, and so cultural conservatism, a stepchild of conservative politics for decades, could finally arise.

The problem was, it was hard to control. It started to seem nasty. Murmurs of racism, antisemitism, classism. Murmurs that the Republicans were stuck in an Ozzie-and-Harriet daydream. It wasn't working. People asked why, with the economy crumbling, the Republicans were talking about illegitimacy. One poll showed that after all of the campaigning, Americans trusted Bill Clinton more than George Bush on family values.

"I'm not going to defend every use of the term by every political figure on our side in the last several months," Kristol says. "We used this issue too much to bludgeon and too little as a genuinely important issue. Instead of a genuine attempt to call attention to an important issue and to highlight the extent to which cultural values and factors. ... And the fact of the matter is, it was never intended to be a substitute for an economic policy. To the extent that some people felt that you could use it to win an election in lieu of everything else, that was clearly, the vice president never felt that... .

"Then when the focus became Murphy Brown, it was his sense that this was a good example of Hollywood missing the point, and showing a certain contempt for any attempt to point to the importance of the messages Hollywood sends through the popular culture."

When Kristol took a job in the vice president's office after the squalor and giggling of Quayle's 1988 campaign, people said it was a no-lose proposition: Quayle was such a fool that Kristol would get the credit for anything Quayle did well, and Quayle would get the credit for anything Quayle did badly.

"If people want to write that, obviously there's not much one can do to stop them," Kristol says. "And I worry about, and I'm unhappy about the extent to which this application has been used against the vice president. I didn't take this job because I thought it was a no-lose situation. If that was such a universal ticket to success, we'd have a flood of job applications to be assistants to people who have poor public images, and I don't notice that that's the case."

Four years earlier, Kristol says, he set out to make Quayle a player first in the White House, then in the Republican Party, then with the American public.

And now ...

"Win or lose, I'm, you know, one does one's best, that's all one can do. I'm personally pleased to have been part of the vice president's team for the past almost four years. He has done a good job, and I'm happy to have helped him do a good job."

Kristol did well with the White House. As for the Republican Party, a poll of delegates at the convention in Houston put Quayle fifth on a list of favorites for the 1996 nomination, behind not only Jack Kemp and James Baker, but also No Preference and Other. As for the American public, Quayle remains famous for bizarre brain-lock episodes like telling a schoolboy to misspell "potato," or telling reporters, "Hawaii has always been a very pivotal role in the Pacific. It is in the Pacific. It is a part of the United States that is an island that is right here." After four years, he still has lower favorable than unfavorable ratings.

"So does the president," Kristol says.

It seems one of the smaller comforts to be found in the current campaign. But that's not the point. It's hard to imagine a liberal with credentials as good as Kristol's applying for a job with a klutz of Quayle's credentials. But Quayle is the perfect conservative oxymoron, an underdog in power, a martyr with Secret Service protection. For a contrarian, the logic is clear.

"I think I do have a slightly contrarian nature," Kristol says. "I don't know if that's good or bad. I'm sure it can lead me astray sometimes. I remember shocking my high school history teacher by defending the Austro-Hungarian empire as arguably a good thing. The right thing to say was self-determination is good, finally these countries achieve freedom from ... I remember sort of shocking this teacher. I was rebuked pretty sharply."

Growing up on Riverside Drive, he says, he "would root for just whoever was challenging the Yankees. I was a Mets fan, not a Yankees fan; a Jets fan, not a Giants fan. I think it's kind of an instinctive desire to root for the underdog."

At Harvard he would wear a Spiro Agnew sweat shirt for the hell of it.

"It's fun being the underdog, and I like to think, in fact, you know, I have fond memories of being one of five Nixon supporters."

He finished Harvard in three years, got his PhD in political philosophy, taught at the University of Pennsylvania and then Harvard.

Kristol arrived in Washington in 1985 after he left the Kennedy School of Government for a job on the staff of William Bennett, then secretary of education. He became known for his energy and endless supply of ideas. He quit in 1988 to manage the senate campaign in Maryland of his old roommate, Alan Keyes, the black Republican who this year called the party "racist" for not giving him all the campaign funding he wanted. Keyes got hammered, but Kristol's reputation grew: a Harvard intellectual who could handle the scut work of a campaign.

Like Keyes, he is a Straussian, an intellectual orientation he inherited from Harvey Mansfield, his professor at Harvard. It came from Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago. Strauss fought against liberal relativism, and for the idea of natural rights derived from a natural order described in the classics. There have been Straussians all over Washington in recent years: a Quayle defense adviser named Carnes Lord; Robert Goldwin at the American Enterprise Institute; Walter Berns at Georgetown University; and Francis Fukuyama at the State Department, before he left to finish his book on "The End of History."

Dinesh D'Souza, another bright young star in Washington's conservative sky, says: "Straussians have an intellectual rigor that is very attractive. They have extolled the idea of the statesman, and the notion of advising the great, the prince, like Machiavelli or Aristotle. This is necessary because the prince is not always the smartest guy in the world."

His job with Dan Quayle, Kristol has said, "is not to hum quietly, it's to change the world."

And now the election approaches, and the polls are prophesying doom. Outside the office window, the leaves turn and the grass bristles with the blithe beauty of a city that cares only about winners. Which makes it a tough town for conservatives, who take a certain satisfaction in decline and fall -- or at least take comfort in the thought that it's better to have civilization going down the drain than coming up it. One problem, though, is that a conservative movement that seemed so cheerfully united 12 years ago is on tumble dry now, contrarianism turning on itself, party splits at the convention that made onlookers think they were watching Democrats.

"One of the things to be done is improving the conservative movement itself, which in some respects has gotten, well, sectarian and bitter," Kristol says. "Other parts have become sort of fat and lazy. We need to regroup and think of a realistic agenda that isn't purely defensive. The conservative analysis of problems besetting us is very powerful. How to solve them is not so powerful. The closing of the American mind we've analyzed. We don't know how to achieve the opening of the American mind."

He may have his chance, far from the tiny potato-spelling details of daily politics. If the Republicans lose, his next stop may be one of the shadow governments the conservatives set up at one think tank or foundation or another -- he has a lot of friends at the Hudson Institute, including his former boss, William Bennett. He is a made guy in Washington's conservative mafia, a pal of Reps. Vin Weber and Newt Gingrich, with all the credentials of a Harvard professor (conservatives love the imprimatur of liberal institutions).

He's apt to be good at being in the out-party.

When Democrats are out, they act like resentful nobility, a kind of fatigued self-righteousness about them. But conservative Republicans can read their books by the fireside, argue over Burke, Strauss and Hayek, grind their teeth and be martyrs and contrarians. And Lord knows the country could use some family values. It's a no-lose situation.