Of course Tony Lake offered to resign.

President Clinton's national security adviser, a private man with an abhorrence of melodrama, presents it as a casual, almost offhand remark. In the terrible days after the downing of a U.S. helicopter in Mogadishu and the deaths of 18 servicemen, Lake told the president that, naturally, he was prepared to step down if that would help.

Lake describes the offer with a tone of mild surprise that anyone might have acted differently, combined with chagrin that his private conversation with the president had leaked.

"That was not a big deal," he says. "It's what you do."

It is a simple summation of the gentleman's code by which William Anthony Kirsopp Lake has lived his life, a factual statement of what one does in such circumstances. Neither Secretary of State Warren Christopher nor departing Defense Secretary Les Aspin, the other two legs of the troubled foreign policy troika, made a similar offer.

"It was a matter of integrity," says Lake's deputy, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger. "Tony generally has a strong sense of responsibility for all of this, whether he is in fact responsible or not."

But for anyone who knows the 54-year-old Lake, the studied casualness with which he reluctantly relates the episode masks what was surely an agonizing moment for a man with enormous pride and a lifelong stake in America's foreign policy. After going to Vietnam as a Foreign Service officer inspired by President Kennedy, he served in the Nixon White House under national security adviser Henry Kissinger and the Carter State Department under Cyrus Vance.

Talk to Lake's friends, and a consistent theme, surprising to those who see only his self-effacing, diffident public persona, is his competitiveness. The prep school debater, the captain of the Harvard squash team, they say, is still a person who "competes to win," in the words of his friend John Rigby.

"People have this impression of him as a laid-back guy," says National Security Council staff director Nancy Soderberg. "Tony is not a laid-back guy."

"He seemingly is content to labor anonymously in the vineyard," says one White House official, "but he really wants to be successful."

With the lowest profile of any senior White House official, Tony Lake is an improbable Washington creature -- a man who fervently desires to be both anonymous and accomplished. By temperament and breeding, by experience and conviction, he is determined to be the foreign policy strategist nobody knows but everybody respects. The question is whether in an era of 24-hour headlines and instant, often uncivil, assessments, a world of Cable News Network and "The McLaughlin Group," letting Lake be Lake is the best strategy for this domestically focused administration.

Lake himself acknowledges that he needs to be more visible in order to achieve his aim -- though he is still determined, as one senior administration official puts it, "to keep the barbarians at the gate a little bit" by, for example, avoiding television talk shows.

That ambivalence comes through in a recent interview when he talks about media exposure. "I should have done more," Lake now says, then quickly amends: "I still believe I should not have done a lot... . Partly I didn't realize how much more important in Washington it was today than even 12 years ago to be on television or to be quoted on the record. I didn't realize just how strongly Washington is fixed on public perceptions."

Lake spends a lot of time these days thinking about the gap between what he knows to be the public perception and what he is convinced is the reality. At its worse, the perception, reinforced last week with the resignation after less than a year in office of Aspin, is of a lurching and indecisive national security team that has resulted in disaster and drift in trouble spots such as Haiti, Bosnia and Somalia.

But in Lake's view, what are perceived as failures are largely the result of intractable and inherited problems or of sheer bad luck. In any case, he argues, they are outweighed by such successes as promoting democracy in Russia and elsewhere, stage-managing peace in the Mideast, expanding free trade and working toward nuclear nonproliferation.

"We have accomplished a great deal in this first year. We have," he says, in his office on a recent Sunday morning, his Australian shepherd Tucker stretched out on the floor.

But as Lake himself well knows, an administration's foreign policy successes can be wiped out by high-profile failures. He watched this happen during the Carter administration, as such achievements as the Camp David accords and the Panama Canal treaty were erased by the vivid image of Americans held hostage in Iran -- images not unlike those of an American corpse being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

"That doesn't make it real, dammit," Lake says. Tucker barks in alarm as his master's voice grows tense and rises. "That's the appearance point... . That doesn't mean that they're not successes... . It is a sad fact that the failures may be more dramatic. That's what's so frustrating about this."

At the end of a long interview, Lake -- still coughing from the bronchitis that hit him on the heels of the Somalia crisis -- comes as close as he does in public to letting that show. "It really is true," he says, "that the last few months were lousy."

'A Yankee Aristocrat'

To watch Lake in the Rose Garden Thursday as President Clinton announced his new defense secretary, retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, was to witness a man uncomfortable in the spotlight. As Clinton appeared with his past and future defense secretaries in the December chill, Lake chose to stand well off to the side. He edged next to an American flag and drew a corner of the flag across his suit jacket, looking for all the world as if he wanted to disappear into its folds.

"When he's in the limelight he always gives the impression of not quite a night creature, but of somebody who's blinking his eyes a little bit: 'Who are all these people?' " says one administration official.

When he assumes the protective coloration of a senior administration official, speaking to reporters on background, Lake is in his element. In his absolute conviction that if he simply reasons with reporters he can persuade them to alter their generally negative assessments of Clinton's foreign policy, Lake has devoted hours to such sessions.

But pursuing Lake on Lake is a painful process. Sitting in a wing chair in his White House office, Lake demonstrates his discomfort, leaning away from an interviewer, pressing his fingertips together as he contemplates a question. "I'm a hard one," Lake says, chuckling apologetically. "I'm sorry."

"Tony is a private person and I think there's a lot inside that even his sisters don't know," says his older sister, Anne Prescott. "All human beings are mysterious but Tony's a little more mysterious than others... . As my sister says, 'He can be a black hole -- information goes in but it doesn't come out.' "

Though many of his friends assume that Lake's penchant for privacy is the product of a classic New England WASP upbringing, Prescott attributes her brother's personality to much the opposite -- growing up in a family of talkers and tempers.

"We talked all the time," she says of their childhood in New Canaan, Conn., "and maybe he just felt somebody had to keep things inside." Their father, a British-born textile executive, had a volcanic temper, and, Prescott says, "Tony learned that answering back wasn't as effective as going inside himself."

Lake, says his friend Dan Okrent, managing editor of Life Magazine, "has more control over himself than virtually anybody else I know." When Lake, overworked and dehydrated, fainted one day during a White House meeting with freshman Democrats, one friend says, "it was humiliating to him."

As well, there is Lake's intense distaste for self-promotion. As the interview proceeds, he constantly interrupts himself, worrying that he will sound self-aggrandizing, in response to the most mild biographical question.

Asked what he views as his biggest achievement in office, Lake demurs. "Pass," he finally says. "That would be the sin of pride." When a reporter points out that some figures actually enjoy being interviewed, Lake comments wryly: "That's what I like so much about this town."

"There is the Yankee aristocrat there," says author Tracy Kidder, a friend who lives near his 140-acre Massachusetts cattle farm. "There's nothing ostentatious about this guy... . A Yankee aristocrat might leave his front porch unpainted only to make sure he doesn't look ostentatious to their neighbors. I wouldn't have expected him to move into the office and begin making lots and lots of noise."

A Growing Disillusionment

In office, Lake has been haunted by the ghosts of two predecessors: Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose battles with Secretary of State Vance he witnessed firsthand during the Carter administration as one of Vance's most trusted aides. Both men serve largely as negative models and help explain his near invisibility.

Kissinger maneuvered even before Nixon took office to usurp power from his main foreign policy rival, Secretary of State William Rogers; once in office, he transformed the national security adviser into the central foreign policy player.

An idealistic young Lake had joined the Foreign Service in 1962, a logical career choice in that era, just a few years before college students like Bill Clinton took to the streets to protest the war in Vietnam.

Lake had grown up in a family with an intense interest in public affairs: His father was a passionate New Dealer (Lake's godfather was New Deal adviser A.A. Berle); his mother, a Reader's Digest editor, was an Eisenhower Republican. (In a strange coincidence, she had dated George Kennan, the foreign policy legend whose State Department position Lake was to hold years later.)

The Foreign Service also matched Lake's temperament. His sister Anne describes him as "a blend of my mother's diplomacy and my father's Puritan conscience." When she and her father argued, she says, "I can still remember how Tony would sort of maneuver us around so we would come back on speaking terms. He was learning how to do this when he was 10 years old."

After studying history at Harvard and international economics on a fellowship at Cambridge, Lake asked to be sent to Asia. "That was where the human problems were most intense, and I hoped to contribute in a small way to their alleviation," he wrote later.

In Vietnam, as he would throughout his career, Lake caught the eye of an important man, serving as a staff assistant to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Writing later in the New York Times Magazine, Lake described "the exhilaration of being present at great events, watching men make decisions that were reported in the newspapers, or more glamorous still, that were hidden carefully from reporters."

Meanwhile, his wife, Antonia, family and friends were increasingly opposed to the war that Lake helped justify. "I think Tony was briefly beguiled when he was in Vietnam," says his sister Anne. "He would say right after he came home from Vietnam that 'I've read the secret telegrams and you haven't,' and I think that was very educational for him because he eventually discovered that being close to power and being in on secrets doesn't necessarily make you right."

By 1969, when he joined Kissinger's staff, Lake too "was sick of a war that defied termination."

In his Times article, jointly written with Antonia as a dialogue about their growing disillusionment, Lake posed the obvious question. "Believing this, how could I become his Special Assistant ...? Partly, of course, it was the fascination and potential career rewards of such a job. Partly, the hope that a new administration, and, especially, Kissinger himself could cut the Vietnam knot. And, largely, because you {Antonia Lake} and friends agreed that I might be able to have some measure of influence."

That turned out to be a bit of self-delusion. More followed. Lake and fellow staffer Roger Morris stumbled on evidence that Kissinger was wiretapping one of their colleagues, but kept silent. "Roger and I decided not to confront Kissinger," Lake told Kissinger biographer Walter Isaacson. "We were fighting on enough fronts."

Finally, when Nixon decided to order the bombing of Cambodia, Lake, Morris and another staffer, William Watts -- what Kissinger called the "bleeding hearts club" -- resigned in protest. But they decided not to make their disagreement public -- not wanting to injure Kissinger, whom they saw as the last figure of hope inside the administration.

Two weeks later, Kissinger approved a wiretap on Lake's home phone. "I went to Vietnam just filled with idealism and pushing democracy and all the Kennedy stuff, and I think what I got through all of that was a deepening of the skepticism, the sense of irony, but not, I hope, cynicism," Lake says.

Some of those lessons were reinforced in the Carter years: As Vance and Brzezinski feuded for dominance, the president's message became muddled and contradictory. "It was pure poison," says Leslie Gelb, another alumnus of that administration.

Hodding Carter, who was Vance's spokesman at the time, says Lake "saw what amounted to a nonstop campaign by the national security adviser to usurp the position of the Secretary of State ... and I think he knows from his experiences of where the national security adviser is located, in total proximity to the president, that the possibility for him engaging in a lot of power-building mischief is very high."

By the time Carter left office, Lake had had enough. He bought a farm and took a teaching job at Mount Holyoke. "He's smart and he's competitive and all those things, but I think there's also an ambivalence in his ... approach to the Washington life, which meant that he also values his privacy and values his family," says Antonia Lake. The Lakes have three children, 23 to 29. "Moving to the farm was the chance to really as a family be together again."

For Lake, too, "Washington was becoming the kind of place where it was difficult to accomplish anything in the national interest," Gelb says. "People were more interested in killing each other than in helping the country. He did escape."

When he came back, it seemed as though he could do it on his own terms. A year ago, as Clinton announced his selection, Lake joked that he took the job "because the price of beef is down."

As much as Lake is driven to succeed in the job he now holds, "Tony," says Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos, "is the only person in the administration who doesn't psychologically need to be here."

Back to Washington

As the 1992 campaign got underway, Lake was planning to write about it rather than participate. His book was to be about how presidential candidates, in pursuit of victory, damage themselves and the country with politically driven statements on foreign policy.

"I thought the Democrats would lose and that we would screw up again on foreign policy," he says.

But Lake found himself "interviewing 12-year-olds" in various campaigns as they outlined their grand plans, and biting his tongue to keep from offering advice. So when Sandy Berger, who had been Lake's top aide in the State Department, urged him to consider signing on with Clinton, Lake says, "I could smell the gun smoke. There is always a spasm of missing it."

The planned book topic seems ironic now, a fact not lost on Lake. After blasting Bush for failing to take decisive steps to improve the situation in Bosnia, Clinton has found himself unable to implement his own prescription. After denouncing as immoral Bush's policy of returning Haitian boat people without affording them a hearing, Clinton adopted it himself.

But other campaign advisers credit Lake with consistently pressing for wiggle room in the candidate's statements. Go back and look at the statements on Bosnia, they say, and you see Lake's handiwork in the careful phrasing: "we must do what we reasonably can," "the greatest possible urgency."

Clinton found Lake "one really smart dude," as he told a friend. And Lake, who has long written about bringing human concerns to bear on foreign policy, was impressed with Clinton's focus on the human element.

Lake arrived at their first meeting, he recalls, prepared to talk about the details of foreign policy. "What he {Clinton} wanted to talk about was how people were hurting economically and what could be done about it. He was talking about my neighbors {in Worthington, Mass.} and that made a big impression on me."

Though they respected each other from the start, it has taken some accommodation for the gregarious, schmoozing Arkansan and the reserved, businesslike New Englander to understand each other's styles. Clinton likes nothing better than to chew over a problem endlessly. Lake, while he has a dry sense of humor, favors crisp efficiency; at the start of the administration, he would stand up in hopes of ending a meeting when he thought it had taken up too much of the president's time.

Even now, after more than a year of working together, says another administration official, "it's not a huggable relationship. The huggable relationship is more between the president and Sandy {Berger, now Lake's deputy}... . With Tony, it's a bit more of a mutually respectful distance."

But then Lake doesn't need a public hug. He rarely chooses to travel with Clinton, believing he can get more work done by staying behind and apparently unconcerned about the perception that by leaving the presidential orbit he is out of the loop of power.

Indeed, joining the Clinton administration offered Lake the chance to avoid the mistakes of the past and to put into practice his own vision of the national security adviser. As outlined in a book he co-wrote a decade earlier, the adviser "should be strictly an inside operator," neither speaking publicly nor engaging in diplomacy. When -- after nine months in office -- he gave his first major speech, aides labeled the event after the reclusive movie star: "Garbo Talks."

"The trade-off initially was very calculated and it was the right calculation -- he could best drive the process if he were behind the scenes," one administration official said.

But there were two serious miscalculations.

One was the ability of the designated spokesmen -- largely Christopher and Aspin -- to fill that role themselves. "This team was put together with an eye to a number of virtues, but {communications skills} kind of got lost in the shuffle," one administration official said. That misstep is particularly surprising in light of Lake's admonition, in his 1984 book, that "presidents and their principal aides should give the highest priority to public foreign policy education."

The second was the change in Washington in the 12 years that Lake had spent away. The instant nature of news in a world constantly tuned to Cable News Network, and the accompanying incessant demand for instant reaction and analysis fueled by the proliferation of talk shows, made having a strong White House voice essential.

While they give him credit for creating a collegial process that has helped avoid the backbiting of the past, even his allies in the administration say that Lake now needs to become more assertive.

"A number of Tony's friends have urged him to both lighten up and toughen up a little bit," one of them says, suggesting that Lake needs to accept that leaks are to some extent a fact of Washington life and to "thicken up his armor, be less ambivalent and conflict-ridden about speaking out."

When he does speak, his vision is a complicated one; indeed, one senior official concedes that neither Lake nor the administration has yet articulated a coherent outline of the U.S. role in the complex new world. Lake is still the idealist -- some would say romantic -- about the ability of America to be a force for good in the world. But at the same time, he believes this goal cannot override pragmatic thinking.

During the Carter years, when human rights drove foreign policy, Lake aligned with those who believed it could be taken too far. "Tony was much given to what I can only think of as the professional point of view, which was that human rights ought not be allowed to mess up the grander design of the policy," says Hodding Carter.

In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Lake struck a similar stand on humanitarian concerns. "Television images of starvation and privation will always tug at our emotions," he said, "but CNN is not a compass for American interests. We cannot act on the urge, rooted as it is in good intentions, to respond to every crisis."

That tension has played out most painfully for Lake as he has tried to steer a course between morality and pragmatism in Bosnia. Friends and officials say Lake has agonized over the bloodshed there and the United States' apparent impotence. But asked if that has been his "greatest disappointment," Lake shies away from such an emotional term. "My greatest frustration," he allows.

Lake helped push through the "lift and strike" proposal to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims and engage in air strikes against the Serbs; in one of the administration's greatest public embarrassments, after struggling to come up with the policy, it then failed to persuade its allies to go along.

Determined not to repeat that mistake with a later proposal to authorize air strikes against the Serbs if they continued the strangulation of Sarajevo, Lake flew to London and Paris to work the deal before it became public.

It was the sort of trip he had made as a young aide with Kissinger. This time around, as Lake takes pains to point out, it was different: The State Department was included in the plan and had a representative on board. What hadn't changed for a man who says he loves "adventures" was the thrill. For all the policy calculations and bureaucratic maneuvering, the nuanced language of diplomacy and the endless stream of briefing papers, there is an excitement to this work, to having the chance to help remake the world.

"He actually called me from the plane and he said, 'This is terrific,' " says Peter Tarnoff, undersecretary of state for political affairs and a friend since their days in Vietnam. " 'Here I am, the national security adviser on my own secret mission.' "