Jamie Gorelick is not the attorney general of the United States.

Janet Reno is.

Some in Washington are confused on this point. It is a Washington sport to study the wielding of power -- particularly when the person who is supposed to do the wielding appears to have a weakening grip. This is the fate currently endured by Reno, once the darling of the administration.

The bloom has faded from the Reno rose: Critics in Congress and the White House complain that Reno has no clear agenda and that she isn't organized enough to run a sprawling department of nearly 100,000 employees. Against that background, Gorelick is cast as an aspirant to the throne. And certainly, Gorelick is strong where Reno is weak. She is a tough, demanding manager, exerting an influence over every policy and practice that emanates from the top.

But Gorelick, 45, is not the attorney general -- she is a super-competent deputy. It isn't her job to set an agenda, and she hasn't done it. And her track record demonstrates that sometimes she doesn't get her way. FBI Director Louis Freeh did not heed her advice to suspend Larry Potts for his role in the Ruby Ridge standoff -- instead, he slapped Potts on the wrist and then promoted him to second-in-command despite Gorelick's misgivings. Potts has since been suspended pending an investigation of his conduct, Freeh has bought himself a pile of trouble, and Gorelick was the one who appeared before the Senate yesterday to try to repair the damage by announcing tough new restrictions on the use of deadly force by federal agents.

Gorelick also pressed unsuccessfully to have the government attack a Colorado referendum limiting gay rights, only to be overruled by Reno, according to several attorneys familiar with the issue. "I thought if we had Jamie on board, we were set," says one activist. (Some sources involved in the litigation believe that the White House dictated policy on this matter.)

If Gorelick does not win every battle, she keeps the troops in order. When she arrived at Justice last year, the department was adrift. Phil Heymann, the previous deputy, had left after clashing with Reno, and Webster Hubbell, the associate attorney general, had resigned in disgrace. Gorelick came just in time for the Oklahoma City bombing, just in time to maintain order as Justice was battered by congressional inquiries into its handling of Waco and Ruby Ridge.

Now the game in town is to observe the two women at the top, looking for signs that Gorelick is encroaching.

One Justice insider says the perception that Gorelick is after Reno's job "hangs like a cloud" over the department. Reno dismisses the idea. "She'd be a great attorney general, but I don't sense that at all," Reno says.

Reno says the two bring complementary skills to the job, injecting a reminder of the gaps in Gorelick's resume. "She is a splendid lawyer, a person of great analytical skills, superb judgment and an understanding of Washington," Reno says. "She's never been a local prosecutor, she's never seen local law enforcement problems firsthand. . . . The outside Washington experience combined with the inside Washington experience is excellent."

Gorelick's associates say the two women have a brisk, plain-spoken style of communicating but they reject the idea that there is a power struggle brewing. Rather, they say Reno is happy -- some say relieved -- to rely on an efficient second-in-command. "I don't think Janet Reno is the kind of person who would be threatened by having someone like Jamie work for her," says Seth Waxman, Gorelick's former law partner, who is now associate deputy attorney general. "And Jamie is not the kind of person who would be trying to upstage the attorney general."

"I meet with the two of them every single day, and I think they have a great relationship," says Assistant Attorney General Walter Dellinger, head of the Office of Legal Counsel. "There are sometimes sparks, but that's fully to be expected with any two high-powered lawyers."

So everyone's agreed that Gorelick is not attorney general. For the moment she is simply a rarity in the Clinton administration: a baby boom-era Washington insider who's become a star. And she knows the way things work too well to be in a hurry.

"She's ambitious, as we all are," says longtime friend and journalist Michael Kinsley, "and she's good at being ambitious." Going for the Gold

In 1979, Gorelick -- who had taken a break from private practice to do a stint in the government -- got a medal for outstanding service. She called her mother and described the silver medallion hanging from a ribbon.

"Who got the gold?" her mother asked.

Gorelick laughs at the story but protests that it's less revealing than it seems. Her younger brother, Steven, a professor at Stanford University, agrees that the Gorelick children didn't grow up with parental pressure to overachieve. "Maybe on a very subtle level, but it was never expressed," he says.

But Gorelick says her parents grew up poor and worked so hard at giving their children opportunities that it seemed almost a crime to waste them.

"I had every lesson," Gorelick says. "Every lesson known to the world. Piano, guitar, clarinet, glockenspiel, French, modern dance, jazz, tap dancing. Swallowing."

Swallowing?

"Swallowing. They didn't think I swallowed correctly."

From high school to Harvard to her present position as the number-two power at the Justice Department, Gorelick's record of academic and professional achievement is so exemplary that she worries that an article about her might make her sound . . . dull. "It would be totally inaccurate to picture me as some automaton," she protests. Gamely, she offers a childhood shortcoming: In grade school, she flunked handwriting.

The family lived in Great Neck, N.Y. -- a Long Island bedroom community that was caught between the Ward-and-June idealism of the early '60s and the social upheavals that followed. Jamie's father is a retired oral surgeon and an avid amateur archaeologist whose collection of ancient Persian cylinder seals is now housed in a museum in Toronto. (Gorelick wears a small one set in a ring.)

Her mother is an artist -- so fretful, Steven says, that she couldn't bear to watch a basketball game because suspense over the outcome was too much for her. Jamie says she learned to be unflappable under pressure partly in reaction to the anxiety surrounding her as a child.

Both parents were intellectuals active in liberal politics. They took their kids to Washington to participate in the big civil rights and antiwar marches of the late '60s.

"One day you would march in a Fourth of July parade with the Brownies and the next day you might attend a civil rights march," Gorelick says.

When Gorelick was in high school, she worked so hard that her father offered her $10 to get a B. She doesn't remember whether she collected.

Probably not.

When she graduated, her smart friend Mark Kelman wrote in the yearbook that she would become either a Supreme Court justice or a housewife. Kelman, now a law professor at Stanford, says he was just kidding about the housewife part. He thinks he could still be right about the Supreme Court, though. And Don't Call Me Mister

After high school, Gorelick found Harvard liberating. "I felt very much under pressure in high school and very driven, and I didn't like it at all," she says. "I loved being at Harvard because everybody there was smart -- it was a given -- and there wasn't a sense of competition."

She impressed professors such as Alan Dershowitz and Marty Peretz. "You saw her leadership and take-control attitude," Dershowitz says. "She's a no-nonsense person. She could just cut through crap."

"The mark of destiny was on her when she was 19," says Peretz, now owner of the New Republic.

At Harvard Law School, some classmates remember a session with the distinguished visiting professor Gerald Gunther, whose textbook was required reading. He called on Gorelick and began to pose a hypothetical: "Say you're Mr. Justice Gorelick . . . "

"Mister Justice Gorelick?" she interrupted. "What do you mean, Mister Justice Gorelick?"

"He was struck at that moment by the possibility that there really could be a woman justice," Gorelick says. "It's become a joke between us ever since."

Friends say the exchange was typical Gorelick. "What was striking was the range of people she got to know," says author and friend Lincoln Caplan, who attended Harvard at the same time. "She made friends with people in classes ahead and with teachers."

For all her accomplishments, Gorelick has turned down several prime resume-builders. In addition to declining a prized Fulbright scholarship after college, she also decided not to pursue a clerkship with a federal judge. (Recently, Gorelick passed on an opportunity to become a judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals -- an appointment that can lead to the Supreme Court. Former judge Abner Mikva, now outgoing White House counsel, saw her as the consensus builder that the court needed. "She just has a way of cutting through the chaff," he says.)

Just out of law school, she went to work instead at a small D.C. firm specializing in criminal law. She thought she would enjoy the work more and find more flexible assignments there. She married Richard Waldhorn, a doctor-in-training who had been her sweetheart when she was 13. He now runs the pulmonary division and the medical intensive-care unit at Georgetown University Hospital. They have two children, ages 2 and 7.

According to her brother, Gorelick has always maintained a sense of balance in her life. "I have an idea of what makes me happy and a readiness to do what makes me happy over other things that people may want me to do," she says.

At Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, Gorelick spent little time in the courtroom, instead handling internal investigations for businesses, and representing officials and executives in legal tangles.

She also helped run the firm. "If you wanted to get something done, Jamie got it done," says partner Nat Lewin.

During an early stint in the government in 1978, Gorelick worked at the brand-new Energy Department as part of a transition team that included a young Colin Powell. When she was assigned to the Defense Department during the current administration, she and Powell arrived simultaneously at an important meeting packed with military brass. The general greeted her with an embrace. Tilting his head toward Les Aspin, then the recently anointed secretary of defense, Powell asked her in a stage whisper, "Does he know about us?"

Which leads some to speculate that Gorelick has a shot at being attorney general in the next administration even if Clinton doesn't occupy the White House. The Human Touch

Friends say that a remarkable aspect of Gorelick's career has been her ability to ascend without making a lot of enemies. Schoolmate Lincoln Caplan says she would be an overwhelming personality if she weren't also an exceptionally empathetic friend. "It's a very endearing and redeeming quality that softens her and keeps her from being larger than life or a steamroller," he says.

"I'm having trouble describing why I like her so much," says Kinsley. "The kind of person who wants to become president of the bar association is not the kind of person I'd usually appreciate."

Reno has recalled that during her confirmation process, Gorelick had tears in her eyes when Reno talked about her family. "She thought I was all business," Gorelick says. "It was the first time she saw me as a person."

Judith Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, remembers Gorelick taking time on a sweltering summer Sunday several years ago to see Lichtman's daughter perform in "Guys and Dolls" in a high school auditorium. "For weeks or months, the first words out of her mouth was, I couldn't get over Julia in that play -- how fabulous she was!' It was just lovely and touching," Lichtman says.

The trick, says Gorelick with Zenlike simplicity, is to keep life in its compartments. "It's really important to me to be -- emotionally and otherwise -- wherever I am, and not be in the last place that I was or in the next place that I'm going to be."

But these days, Gorelick acknowledges, the biggest compartment is the one in which she works. Waxman figures that Gorelick and her staff accomplish more than any other deputy attorney general's office ever has. "But between that and her family responsibilities," he says, "Jamie has zero time to shoot the breeze."

"My natural mode is not marching in 10- or 15-minute segments from one activity to another without a breath," Gorelick says. "I have to discipline myself to do this."

In her juggernaut mode, Gorelick has no patience for mistakes, according to an official inside the Justice Department. He remembers one meeting in which she dressed down a veteran career staffer who didn't answer a question to her satisfaction. "She ended up screaming and yelling at him about not coming prepared, not having acceptable answers," this observer remembers. "I mean, it was like she was screaming at your grandfather."

Gorelick says she doesn't remember this incident. "I do have a temper," she says. "It's not something I particularly like about myself." She strives for a "humane" environment, she says, but she gets angry when decisions must be made without adequate preparation. "I do have to make this place run," she says, "and it is a very unwieldy organization." Deft Handling

Since she joined the administration, Gorelick has stepped from disaster to disaster and flourished. One of her first tasks on Clinton's transition team was handling the Zoe Baird confirmation process when Baird was nominated for attorney general. (Baird's employer, Aetna Insurance, is a major client of Gorelick's former law firm.) Baird succumbed to Nannygate and Gorelick was assigned to Reno, who didn't know her. This time, the process went more smoothly.

Then Gorelick became general counsel at the Defense Department just in time to deal with the raging controversy over gays in the military. When she arrived, she says, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy had already been set. Gorelick says her task was figuring out how to write the regulations. The trick was to slide the policy down the reluctant military gullet.

Gorelick decided to discuss the policy as broadly as possible and "have a very open process even if it meant taking much longer than the secretary would have liked." Aspin wanted the regulations in September; they weren't ready until December. One Defense Department insider who watched the issue develop says Gorelick was masterly.

"Her handling of that demonstrated that she was somebody they could count on," he says. "The political thing to do would have been to stay 60 miles away from it. This was her big issue, and she made it boring. She made it all nuanced and put it into a process. Nobody was that happy with it, but the issue's just gone away. That's a brilliant stroke."

The issue hasn't gone away for gay-rights groups, however, and some activists wonder whether Gorelick appreciated the impact of the policy she helped to effect. Gay-rights advocate Chai Feldblum, legal director of the Campaign for Military Service, concluded that she'd do better to appeal to Gorelick's legal logic than to her empathy. "I think she'd be more intrigued by {the issues} as a lawyer than moved by stories of pathos," she says. Feldblum acknowledges that Gorelick may not have been able to rewrite the policy but adds, "I was deeply disappointed that Jamie didn't decide to push the limits."

Gorelick says she searched for common ground between the military and the gay communities but didn't find much. "It's personally difficult," she says. "I have very close friends who hate the policy. I spent a lot of my time in the civil rights community when I was in private practice. My former firm has filed briefs on the other side of these cases. For me, it was an assignment I was given, and I did the best I could with it." Jamie's Law

Gorelick was a natural fit at the Pentagon. "She was struck by the efficiency of the place," says Caplan. By the time she testified at her confirmation hearings for the job at Justice, he noticed, she had adopted some quasi-military mannerisms: a brisk nod and the abundant use of "sir" in response to questions. She seemed more disciplined than ever -- and a little more brusque. At Justice, Gorelick has surrounded herself with a trusted staff that includes a half-dozen staffers from the Pentagon.

Some at Justice feel excluded. "There's this intense kind of feeling that emanates from her office that if she and her hand-picked people don't control it, it's going to be all {messed} up," says an insider. "It's like, they're superior human beings and everyone else is stupid."

Gorelick says that perception is wrong but she acknowledges that she involves herself deeply in department business. "My job is to be intrusive into other domains," she says. "Every component here would tell you that I am most intrusive as to that component, that I pick on them. I consider that to be a compliment."

And lest there be any doubt who's in charge, she presides over meetings with a gavel given to her by Waxman when she became president of the D.C. Bar Association in 1992.

The base is inscribed "Jamie's law." The gavel itself reads "Because I said so." CAPTION: Jamie Gorelick talks with Sen. Herbert Kohl yesterday before a hearing on the Ruby Ridge raid. As number two at Justice, she is seen as a tough manager. CAPTION: Gorelick: "She's ambitious," says friend Michael Kinsley, "and she's good at being ambitious." CAPTION: Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick meets with staffers Amy Jeffries, left, and Merrick Garland in her office at Justice.