At an hour when most of Washington has retreated toward the Beltway, when ties are being loosened and glasses raised in anticipation of the weekend, Strobe Talbott is in his office at the State Department -- "impersonating," as the 48-year-old deputy says playfully, the secretary of state, who is abroad.

To have found himself in such high clover -- Friend of Bill Clinton, Keeper of the Secrets, Defender of the Middle Path -- is surely to feel a little giddy, a little wonderful. In 22 years of diplomatic reporting for Time magazine he had allowed himself only one Walter Mitty fantasy, and that was to be ambassador to Moscow. Now he is the number two man at State. Now there is not only Russia to deal with, but Bosnia and Haiti. Already he has learned to strike the note of cautious optimism ("We have faced up to Bosnia in a way that is beginning to show progress") or beat the drum of renewed commitment. "What's going to happen in Haiti," says Talbott, "is that at the end of the day the military thugs who staged a coup against the only elected president that country has ever had are going to leave and {Jean-Bertrand} Aristide is going to come back. That's what's going to happen."

Nelson Strobridge Talbott III -- Rhodes scholar, Yale man, son of an investment banker from Cleveland -- does not, by any stretch, seem like the sort of guy who would ever have to stand up to a bully. And yet there is something valiant about his thug-speak, and maybe it is simply because he is here, carrying on, while outside these fabulous empty rooms that smell of burnt popcorn, the Clinton ship of state is foundering in a sea of good intentions.

There hangs about Talbott an air of premature fogginess, as if he were meant, from a very early age, to inherit the gloom of elder statesman. At Yale, he appeared older than his classmates, more serious, and though he opposed the war in Vietnam and favored (in the Yale Daily News) the decriminalization of marijuana, it is hard to imagine him on the barricades, much less with a bong. Later he confessed to "a moral discomfort that bordered on guilt" when a bad knee kept him "out of the Mekong Delta but not off the squash courts and playing fields of Oxford." Then as now it was easy to see him as a figure of considerable intellect who waged his battles eloquently but from afar.

"You know," says a woman who enjoys his brainy thrust, "Strobe is sort of in the clouds."

While Talbott was writing his senior thesis at Yale, on the Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, he was also corresponding with the younger sister of his college roommate. Brooke Shearer, like her brother Derek and twin Cody, grew up in Southern California. Their father, Lloyd Shearer, using the pen name Walter Scott, created the celebrity column in the front of Parade magazine, and their home, according to a 1971 Washington Post article, was "a kind of salon for political types and West Los Angeles' tennis-playing intelligentsia."

In Shearer, Talbott clearly found a corrective to WASP reserve. Not only was she attractive, she was quick, irreverent and, like her father, she possessed a deep streak of playfulness. To Josephine Talbott, her future mother-in-law, "she was awfully cute. In fact, some people thought she was the date of our seven-years-younger son, Kirk."

Of all the qualities mentioned most often about Talbott -- his intelligence and integrity, his sense of honor and basic goodness -- it is the fact that he carried out his courtship in letters that somehow lifts him above the ordinary. Not even the telephone, when they were apart, seems to have interfered with their silent communion, spread out over three years and across eight time zones.

"It was all correspondence," says Shearer, smiling. "He wrote a lot."

Now, some 20 years later, Talbott is the point man at State, brought in to clarify the Clinton administration's foreign policy, which, so far, has been distinguished by fumbling, equivocation and continuing speculation that Secretary Warren Christopher is about to step down. And Shearer, though occupying a less conspicuous role in the administration as director of the White House Fellows program, has achieved a position of her own in the Washington power grid.

Together, they seem to define official Washington: smart, hard-working, frumpy to the point of being cool. Their Cleveland Park home, where they live with their two teenage sons, is a favorite stopover for relatives and friends from abroad, and Shearer is known for her ability to entertain spontaneously. And yet it is hard to imagine two people more different than Strobe Talbott and Brooke Shearer. "They're so different," says a friend, "that at first glance you wouldn't expect them to be married to each other." Where Talbott appears isolated by his intellect, Shearer excels in flirtation, staying up at parties long after her husband has faded. But where Talbott's stiffness is softened by a real geniality -- making him, as a friend says, "the warm and cozy one" -- Shearer's disarming humor masks an aloofness that keeps people off balance.

Not that any of this distinguishes them in a town of overachievers. And yet, in a city that thrives on the hubba-hubba of power and political contact, they are considered -- at least by some -- a Sexy Couple.

"Strobe has a kind of twinkle in his eye," says writer Sally Quinn. "And he's so sweet, really interesting to talk to. I find him incredibly decent, and I find decency sexy."

"I think they're a terrific couple," chimes the author William Shawcross from London. "They're both incredibly smart, and they're a sexy couple too!"

Being married to a woman who once doused a Washington dinner party with a squirt gun doesn't exactly hurt the wonky image of a straight man like Talbott, and one suspects he has learned more from their differences than mere accommodation. It is not just that he can fall asleep at dinner parties without fear of frost the next morning; indeed, he willingly admits that he has "pooped parties on four continents." Nor is it a matter of a modern male coming to terms with a modern marriage, and simply ceding ground. In almost every way, Talbott has chosen the middle path, and to him Brooke is "a paragon of someone who has managed to get the balance right between the traditional and the liberated."

She is also, he says, "just about the most honest person I have ever known."

When Shearer is asked what attracted her to her husband, she replies, without hesitating, "His basic goodness and integrity, his sense of family and his humor."

Of these traits, the one that people are least likely to mention is his humor.

Shearer levels her gaze. "But they don't know him."

From Pundit to Player

This is Strobe Talbott's life:

Up at 5 a.m. to read or write or play classical guitar.

Jog at 6:15 a.m., Garrison Keillor on the headphones.

Workout at 6:45 a.m.

Breakfast and an intelligence brief at the State Department by 7:30 a.m.

"I try very hard," he says earnestly, "to leave by 7:30 p.m. Brooke will usually hold dinner so we can all eat together."

He works on Saturday mornings, and on Sundays he tries to "step back and reflect." He wears a beeper and calls his parents whenever he leaves town. His sons, Devin and Adrian, he says, take an informed interest in what he does. "They do indeed," he says proudly. "Each of them is quite alert to this world. ... They will often ask me, 'What's it all about, Dad?' And to have to put it in terms they really get is a very useful exercise."

Given that he and Bill Clinton have been friends since their days at Oxford, Talbott finds it amusing that his FOB status has been upgraded since being appointed deputy secretary of state. "First of all," he says patiently, "I am by no means the only person in his circle who's known him a long time. I do not have any sense of having a unique position, or even a primary position." He insists too that it was not Clinton who initially pursued him but Christopher. The famous walk-on-the-beach meeting, when Talbott and the president left a group of joggers at a Renaissance Weekend in South Carolina and walked off on their own, did not, says Talbott, include a job offer. "I had already been asked by Warren Christopher, though we did have an intense conversation about Russia."

It is only natural to wonder what it must be like for a journalist who has spent his career in the pursuit of leaks and scoops to suddenly find himself on the other side, rich in secrets. But Talbott says it's not so very different.

"There is more common ground than might be immediately apparent," he says. "Look, I've studied the process of policymaking for a very long time. One of the things that I think has served me well is that I'm not a stranger in this place."

But, surely --

"Oh, sure, of course, it's different," he goes on. "It's such an obviously good question to ask, but I'm a tad chagrined that I don't have a better answer. All I can tell you is that it is different, but -- this is going to sound contradictory -- it's different in the ways I knew it would be different."

As it happens, Talbott has held a State Department press pass since 1973, and many of his colleagues were once his sources, not only for his columns but for his half-dozen books on U.S.-Soviet relations and arms control. Charles Lane, writing in the March 7 New Republic, suggests that Talbott recognized early on the advantage of keeping "his ties with his establishment elders, without alienating his friends or breaking ranks with his generation." At Time, Lane writes, "Talbott's stories were almost entirely free of any insurgent spirit. His writing about George Kennan, Cyrus Vance, et al., was always reverent. Sometimes it was worshipful."

A senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace speaks admiringly of Talbott as an effective insider, citing his considerable energy and ability to focus clearly on complicated issues, but then adds, "Strobe doesn't welcome dissident opinions. He proves to be remarkably uninterested in any opinion that does not provide ammunition to his own view." The senior fellow sighs heavily and says, "It's a mistake to think that Strobe was a reporter in the traditional sense. He was always a pundit, and perhaps when you get a pundit in a tough policymaking position, you get the predictable results."

It probably didn't help Talbott's reputation for considered opinion when, during his confirmation hearings, he backed down before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over columns he had written about Israel. "On that I simply have changed my opinion," he said, adding that his comments about Israel's limited strategic value were written "in the heat of forensic and journalistic battle." The performance would cause one Cabinet-level official to grouse, "In a way, he's the classic Clintonite. Push them a little and they give in."

On the other hand, it might just be a matter of degree -- how one looks at anything in Washington. "Strobe's a little unctuous when he kisses butt up here," says a staff member of the House foreign relations subcommittee, "but he's responsive. ... He's very quick to see what he needs to fix."

Talbott, in fact, gets high marks for bringing a sense of stability and order to the State Department. He was widely praised for his diplomatic initiative to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan, though it has produced little, and for his NATO Partnership for Peace plan, which provides a framework of security for Russia and the former Warsaw Pact nations. "Strobe is just very, very confident," says a colleague at State. He also has resisted any temptation to grandstand in his new position, and his former comrades in the diplomatic press ranks occasionally catch him reacting to foreign policy events with the enthusiasm of a boy journalist. Last fall he met with Boris Yeltsin at his suburban dacha, and when asked by reporters back in Moscow how things went, he replied, throwing up his hands, "Terrific!"

Now the question is whether the deputy can bolster confidence in Clinton's foreign policy record. "Bill Clinton is our first post-Cold War president," says Talbott. "That entails opportunity. It also entails pitfalls and challenges that didn't face other presidents. ... I think that he personally and the administration deserve credit -- and, I might add, more than we've gotten -- for having moved very quickly to put into effect new structures for a post-Cold War economy. And by that I mean NAFTA, GATT and APEC."

Beyond that, he is hardly illuminating. Talbott asserts that the administration is on "a very solid course" with the former Soviet Union. He acknowledges difficulties in Bosnia and Rwanda. As for Haiti, he says the recent expulsion of international human rights observers "increases the urgency."

Yesterday David Gergen moved from the White House to State to help articulate foreign policy. "He's going to be part of Secretary Christopher's inner circle," says Talbott. "I welcome this. I've known David Gergen for more than 25 years. We were both at Yale, though he was a little ahead of me. He was on the Yale Daily News. I think this is going to be a win-win-win situation."

Flying With the Big Boys

Sometimes he is so into it he appears out of it. This is a man who translated the Khrushchev memoirs at an age when most guys are just finishing college. Who once took his family on a camping trip -- to Siberia.

Not long ago he was at a cocktail party, bantering with friends, when the conversation turned to the sudden retirement of Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg.

"Who's Ryne Sandberg?" Talbott asked.

A chorus of boos and hisses. "You'll never get to be secretary of state if you don't know who Ryne Sandberg is," someone barked.

"Well," replied Talbott, "at least I know who Ryan Nolan is."

He tries to be self-effacing, telling a story about the time President Clinton announced to a gathering of Moscow diplomats: "Strobe was 40 before his socks even matched." Now Talbott is on the edge of his seat, animated, ticking off the names of the great men who flew out to Richard Nixon's funeral aboard Air Force One. "There was Elliott Richardson, Al Haig, Brent Scowcroft, George McGovern, Bill Rogers, Fred Dent -- God, I hope I'm not forgetting someone important ... "

One can almost see him -- strapped in at 30,000 feet, trying to be cool. "I had a Sony Discman with me and was listening to 'The Magic Flute,' but after a while I realized it was much more interesting to listen to the conversation going on around me. So I just kind of gathered snippets, though not so much for the substance but for the historical significance of these people coming together in an atmosphere of good fellowship."

Snippets -- of course. It wouldn't do for a statesman to whip out a reporter's pad and take notes. Strobe Talbott is in the big leagues now, taking heat for the administration's belated interest in India ("I sure did!") and playing it cool with Haiti. The only thing left to wonder about is whether he will replace Warren Christopher. Bob Dole, for one, thinks not. Following Talbott's confirmation by a vote of 66 to 31, the Senate minority leader tweaked: "A strong message needs to be sent: Enough promotions for Strobe Talbott."

But the deputy remains unfazed, calling the remark "a classic slap, a highly partisan and politically effective line," and then complimenting Dole for being "an important and positive force in the Congress for the {Russian} policy I was working on all last year."

As for being cast as the heir apparent, Talbott says, "I have an ironic view of all that. It's really quite simple. While some people don't believe it, I never aspired to this, and God knows I never expected it. I find myself in this job because of a biographical accident. One of the reasons I am having such a good time is that I am working for Warren Christopher. And Warren Christopher is tough. That is not widely appreciated. He's intellectually tough and politically tough. He's going to be secretary of state for the duration, and as long as he wants me to help him, I will."