From the air, the house seems merely enormous. But when you approach by car and enter on foot, it becomes endless, labyrinthine, tasteful but opulent almost beyond reason. He calls it, modestly, "Hala Ranch." Carved into the foothills of the Rockies, it is a fortress of 55,000 square feet, the size of the White House. Strictly speaking, it is a single-family residence. Its 26 bathrooms consume more water than most hotels here. Nestled in the woodlands above it is the outbuilding, a shanty by comparison, as big as a barn, as handsome as a Swiss chalet. This one is fashioned from logs and mortar and stone. Inside is a guest book. "Some log cabin!" wrote one goggle-eyed guest. It was George Bush.

The owner stands here beneath the eight-foot grizzly he shot in Alaska after it charged him twice. He looks at ease in stone-washed dungarees and a denim shirt with rolled-up sleeves, but it seems somehow . . . wrong. You are more accustomed to the thousand-dollar suits, pillowy satin ties, cuff links, shoes supple as syrup. You might as well find Gandhi in a Yankees uniform or Bogart in a leotard.

Here, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz is as close to solitude as one can get with uniformed waiters hovering always, delivering messages on silver trays; where a legion of carabineers patrol every twisting road for 200 acres around. It is here that Bandar, Saudi Arabia's ambassador-extraordinaire to Washington for the past 13 years, spends as much of his time as he can these days, away from his diplomatic duties in Washington. The fighter pilot, bon vivant, secret emissary, architect of multi-billion-dollar arms deals, chief lobbyist for the Saudi cause in Congress and collaborator with four American presidents, is detached, increasingly disillusioned, and plainly bored.

"Are there no more mountains left to climb?" you ask him, surveying the spectacular snow-capped cliffs that are his back yard.

"There are no mountains that excite me anymore," he replies in a weary voice.

The improbable story of Prince Bandar's ascendancy and ultimate disengagement is the quintessential story of Washington, where power is access and access attaches to those with wisdom, magnetism, audacity or money. In the case of Bandar, it has been all four; he is the Arab Gatsby who parlayed charm, swagger, savvy and his country's nearly unimaginable wealth into a role of vast global influence. It was quite an achievement for someone of semi-legitimate birth, of discordantly swarthy appearance in a nation where the ruling class tends toward alabaster; a man who is, after all, merely a diplomat from a mysterious desert kingdom in which thieves are punished with amputation, where women are prohibited from dining alone in public.

Bandar is Gatsby, but he has been more Talleyrand, a man whose influence has transcended and exceeded his official role. He is calculating. He is urbane. He is fascinating. He shows up on the sidelines at the Super Bowl, backslapping the team owner. His security detail rivals that of the president of the United States. He pops up smack in the middle of the Iran-contra scandal. He gets his country to finance the revolution in Afghanistan. He is credited with subtly choreographing the Persian Gulf War, manipulating George Bush and Colin Powell and his own king into the course of action leading to Operation Desert Storm. He brokered far-flung clandestine operations, helping the Central African nation of Chad to thwart an invasion by Libya, squashing the Communist Party in Italy. Italy!

He is credited with bringing Arabs to the table, through phone calls from his hospital bed, for the Arab-Israeli peace accord. He is credited with hand-picking Robert McFarlane as national security adviser, over Jeane Kirkpatrick. When he decides he wants a more spacious front yard for his palatial home in McLean near the Potomac, he buys a neighbor's house next door for $2 million and then knocks it down and plants grass.

He is flamboyant, cocksure and influential in matters large, small and weird. Did anyone wonder why the first non-American to fly in the space shuttle was, of all things, a Saudi? Bandar brokered that, too.

Nothing is the same now. He's not close to the current president. He skips diplomatic functions, even though he is the dean of the diplomatic corps. It is true that this summer, Bandar's face has been showing up anew in the news; with the terrorist bombing of American soldiers in Dhahran, Bandar has been Saudi Arabia's most visible spokesman. He has been all over the newspapers. He has been on "60 Minutes" and "This Week With David Brinkley." In his fine Western suits and distinctive Arab headdress, with his flawless, nearly unaccented English and mastery of idiom and sound bite, he has seemed appropriately reassuring, dolorous, resolute, adroitly bridging two cultures. As Saudi ambassador, this is his job, and he is doing it well.

But public appearances at times of crisis have always been a small part of Bandar's curriculum vitae. He is a master of secret high-wire diplomatic acrobatics.

If it can be said that Washington is an exciting place, it is exciting precisely because it provides the theater for the existence of someone like Bandar. Only here. Nowhere else on Earth. And so it is that the story of his recent midlife detachment is a story about what Washington has become after the Cold War: In every sense, a less intriguing place. Faded Glory

Intrigue has always been Bandar's currency. And now it has been devalued.

With the collapse of Soviet communism, the world today is less of a crucible. Enemies are less defined. Things are less Casablanca, more Little Rock. And, though he's too politically astute to say it, Bandar clearly doesn't disagree very much with Bob Dole's recent description of President Clinton's foreign policy as one marked by "indecision, vacillation and weakness" combined with "misguided romanticism" toward Russia. In a series of interviews in Washington and Aspen, Bandar explained why he has become so bored with his life now: Why he has turned inward, neglected his responsibilities as dean of the diplomatic corps -- and more or less fled Washington. Why his nickname has become "the invisible ambassador."

For one thing, for first time in his life, Bandar's 47-year-old body is betraying him; he is in pain, and that can make a man dissatisfied, even churlish.

Also, he was forced to confront his priorities recently when two of his children were involved in a near-fatal car crash, and he was halfway around the world, tending to business.

Also, there is something else. It is silly, and it is profound.

Bandar used to revel in throwing fabulously lavish "Arabian Nights" galas for Washington's high and mighty, parties that were the talk of the social circuit. Those nights are over. The New Republicans are too serious and the Clinton Democrats aren't up for it, either.

"I was used to a Washington where they knew when to play and when to work. They worked hard and they played hard and they never mixed the two. Now people work very hard, and they're not interested in relaxing and enjoying themselves as much as before," he says. "Everybody is getting to be too square for my taste, too. . . . People are uptight," he says, searching for the right words. "Washington was more colorful before. . . . Now it's more stale."

What a grave new world. Bandar can't even puff on his fat Cuban cigars in polite Washington company anymore.

What follows is Bandar's life, as told primarily by Bandar. It is a heroic tale and, predictably, in his telling, he is the hero; no one accuses this prince of being self-effacing. But contemporaneous accounts of the events he describes, and interviews with persons close to these events -- including former president Carter and Gen. Colin Powell -- confirm the substance of Bandar's recollections. Earning His Wings

Even the beginning of Bandar's life has intrigue.

He was born near the Saudi summer mountain resort of Taif in March 1949, not exactly a royal outcast but not a full-fledged member of the kingdom's founding family, either. Only when he was a teenager did his father, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who is today the kingdom's powerful defense minister, recognize him as a legitimate son.

Bandar's mother was a "commoner," a dark-skinned servant girl from the Red Sea coastal region of Tihama. She was attached to the household of one of Sultan's full sisters. She bore only one child, Bandar. It was his grandmother, Umm Hussa, wife of King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, founding father of modern Saudi Arabia, who provided him with the bonding experience he so badly needed to feel a full member of the royal family. She took him in as a teenager and raised him for four years, imbuing him with the history and folklore surrounding the House of Saud.

"It was fascinating to sit with this woman who was the wife of the founder of Saudi Arabia, who knew all those big and mighty men, like King Faisal, as children," he said. "She would wake me up for dawn prayers every day to go pray with her. That usually meant I had at least an hour or so before I'm ready to go to school. I had nothing to do. So I would sit with her and she would start telling me things."

Earlier, Bandar had grown up an only child in his mother's home in Riyadh, but with 32 half brothers and half sisters, children of Sultan's various wives. He was the dark-skinned one with the nappy hair, the awkward loner. And yet, in the end, only one half brother would emerge as a competitor for international celebrity. That was Khalid bin Sultan, who became the commander, with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, of the U.S.-led Allied Forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

From the beginning, Bandar had to compete for attention and respect. And from the beginning, he did it the way a little boy, hungry for attention, turns a picket fence into a tightrope and makes horrified parents take notice. At 16, he chose the most dangerous military career imaginable and was not satisfied with just being a jet fighter pilot. He became the Royal Saudi Air Force's chief aerobatics artist.

Bandar says he was determined to show the world he was Somebody and not just because he was Sultan's son. He loved the aura that surrounded being a pilot -- everything from the risk-taking to the uniform, the helmet, the paraphernalia. But what "really appealed to my ego," he said, was flying 50 feet off the ground and then rolling his plane over.

"When you're flying an airplane, it doesn't matter who you are. An airplane doesn't know whether you're Prince Bandar or not. Either you know what you're doing or you don't. If you know, you live. If you don't, you kill yourself."

Bandar managed not to kill himself, but he came close. In 1977, when he was commanding a fighter squadron, he made a hard landing and sustained a back injury that would require repeated operations. Bandar's career as a pilot was over, so he set his sights on becoming part of the Royal Saudi Air Force command. He probably would have made it, too, if fate hadn't intervened in Washington.

As Bandar tells the story, it began in 1978 at the Madison Hotel downtown, where by chance he was staying overnight on the way home from a Saudi air force fact-finding mission in California. In the hotel lobby, he ran into the head of the Saudi intelligence service, Prince Turki, who was desperately looking for a Saudi who could explain to American members of Congwhy the Saudis needed to buy America's top-of-the-line F-15 jet fighter. Bandar was a pilot, and he had been schooled in the United States. He spoke English, but more important, he spoke American.

As it turns out, President Carter was also looking for a Saudi national to plead the case to Congress. Carter faced the massive opposition of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful Jewish lobby in America. He needed an ally.

Before he knew it, Bandar, at age 29 and then only a major in the Saudi air force, found himself in the Oval Office being seduced by the soft drawl of President Carter.

"It blew my mind. I went to the White House not knowing what the hell am I doing here," said Bandar. "I had no interest, no knowledge of how this city works."

Carter had a special mission in mind for Maj. Bandar. As Bandar recalls it, Carter said:

"There is one man who can help us. I wonder if you would go and try to talk to him, convince him to support us on this."

Naively, Bandar replied:

"Mr. President, I am sure any American would be proud to get a call from you. So why don't you call him instead of me? I mean, that would be more impressive."

Carter smiled indulgently. "You're right. Almost any other American would. But not this guy."

The guy was Ronald Reagan.

Bandar immediately flew back to California and got an appointment to see the former governor at his home in Los Angeles.

Bandar says persuading Reagan to support the F-15 sale to Saudi Arabia was amazingly easy work. Reagan didn't ask a single question about the plane, or why Saudi Arabia needed it. He wasn't interested in complicated geopolitics. Instead, he had just two questions on his mind: Was Saudi Arabia anti-communist and was it a friend of the United States? Bandar quickly assured him Saudi Arabia had an impeccable record on both accounts.

"Well, I can't see why we can't help people who think we are their friends and they don't like the communists, either. You get my support," Bandar remembers Reagan replying.

On his way to the airport to catch a plane, Reagan found time to hold a news conference and announce his support for the F-15 sale.

Reagan was happy; the sale appealed to his ideology. Carter was happy; he had outflanked AIPAC. Bandar was happy. Very happy. He returned to Washington an instant hero in the eyes of the Carter administration. Overnight, he became its chief lobbyist in the Senate, dispatched by White House vote counters to conduct one-on-one sessions with key Republican and Democratic senators alike. At one point, he even addressed a private luncheon of the Senate Foreign Realations Committee.

At the end of a long, bitter fight with AIPAC, the Carter administration prevailed in the Senate, but only just. It took Vice President Mondale to cast the tie-breaking vote.

No one doubted that it was Bandar who had made the difference.

(In an interview, Carter did not dispute Bandar's version of events. In fact, he said his most vivid memory of Bandar's influence involved yet another incident, in which Bandar's help was instrumental in pushing the Panama Canal treaty through a balky Senate. Carter credits Bandar with obtaining the final vote, by getting Prince Fahd to phone Sen. James G. Abourezk, an Arab American, and persuade him to change his mind.) The Go-Between

Bandar was mesmerized by that initial encounter with Washington. He discovered he had talents of persuasion he never knew he had.

The thrill of it all reminded him of being a daredevil pilot. "It was just as exciting, just as dangerous," he said.

His success in Washington earned him unexpected dividends back home, for it served to consolidate his relationship with his uncle Crown Prince Fahd, who desperately needed a young, articulate, attractive spokesman to defend the Saudi cause.

A year later, Carter sent Prince Fahd a secret message: "Please send Bandar back to Washington to see me." Bandar says he had no idea what his mission was all about until after he was smuggled into the White House -- without even the Saudi ambassador knowing he was in town.

Carter informed him he needed his help, this time to lobby Congress to approve the sale of America's sophisticated airborne warning and combat control aircraft, AWACS.

Bandar's role soon expanded. He began flying back and forth between Washington and Riyadh with one personal message after another between Carter and Fahd. When Carter wanted Saudi help to roll back skyrocketing gasoline prices during the 1979 oil crisis, he sent Bandar with a message to Fahd: "We need help."

Two days later, as Bandar recalls the chain of events, the oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, announced the kingdom was increasing oil production by a million barrels a day. Gasoline prices began going down. Positioned for Influence

Nothing really changed when Reagan came to replace Carter in the White House in January 1981.

"Guess who was the only Saudi official who had ever met with the new president, Ronald Reagan?" laughed Bandar. "So it was decided I should go and make contact with him."

So he did, and Reagan took to using him just as Carter had. Bandar kept taking elaborate cover assignments to mask his role in Washington as royal emissary. Under Carter, he had pursued a master's degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Under Reagan, he did a stint at the National War College, after the rules were changed to allow him to attend.

Then in 1982, Fahd made him the embassy's defense attache, a lowly posting considering his real role as the confidant of the prince, who that June suddenly became king of Saudi Arabia when King Khalid died.

That summer, still only a low-level military attache, Bandar indulged in his first exercise of muscle-flexing in Washington. Israel had invaded Lebanon and had that country's capital, Beirut, under full siege in a bid to crush the guerrilla forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Washington found itself in the center of the crisis, and Bandar became the principal go-between in secret negotiations among Washington, Tel Aviv, Damascus and Riyadh to extricate the PLO from Beirut.

Bandar says Alexander Haig, Reagan's secretary of state, called him into his office on the seventh floor of the State Department to lay down Washington's conditions for the PLO's evacuation. Haig was playing the role of tough guy -- mincing no words, not even bothering to say hello, just jabbing his finger at Bandar, as he recalls, "Patton style."

"They must leave everything behind," said Haig, referring to the PLO's arsenal of weapons. "That's the only way we get them out, Bandar. I'm barely holding back Sharon." Ariel Sharon was then Israel's defense minister, out to crush the PLO once and for all.

Bandar instantly seized the high ground.

"Maybe we should say hello first, and then we can discuss this," he said.

Bandar proposed the PLO guerrillas be allowed to leave carrying at least their small arms to avoid their total public humiliation -- "an honorable exit," as he called it. He understood better than Haig the Arab need to save face -- even at the cost of annihilation.

Haig said no. He was, Bandar says, purple with anger. Bandar recalls his response:

"Let me tell you. If the PLO leaves with their weapons, we have a deal. If they don't leave, we can't agree to that deal. Tell Sharon to go away. I have nothing more to tell you."

Haig thought a minute and then asked, "And if I agree to this, do we have a deal?"

"We have a deal," replied Bandar.

Bandar left. An hour later, he says, Haig called with a message: "We have a deal."

Haig could not be reached to comment on Bandar's version of this confrontation. But unquestionably, what followed was an incredible arrangement: the evacuation of the PLO in boats escorted by American warships.

About a year later, King Fahd formally made Bandar the kingdom's ambassador to Washington. Bandar recalls the ceremony of presenting his credentials at the White House:

Reagan shook his hand with a big smile and told his protocol officer to dispense with the usual formalities. He then asked Bandar, "Do you remember those two chairs we sat on in Los Angeles? I have them upstairs. I want to show them to you."

Bandar tried to present his credentials, but Reagan cut him off.

"You know something? You came a long way. When I first met you, you were just a young major in your air force."

Bandar decided to tweak the president. "You didn't do too shabbily yourself," he said. "When I first met you, you were an unemployed governor."

Reagan, says Bandar, laughed heartily. Then he took him to see those two historic chairs upstairs in the White House. The Missile Deal

Almost from the start of his 13-year stay as ambassador to this country, Bandar has traveled far beyond Washington as the bearer of royal messages, the point man for opening new Saudi doors and diplomatic relations with the communist world, and the king's negotiator of billion-dollar arms deals.

Bandar negotiated $70 billion in arms shipments directly with Britain's then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but it was almost too easy and straightforward. He found his dealings with China's enigmatic leaders a lot more satisfying. They appealed to the daredevil in him. It began in Washington in 1985 with Bandar quietly passing a message to the astounded Chinese ambassador: "We want missiles from you. If the answer is yes, then let me know and I'll go to China."

Typically, Bandar said, "the Chinese came back with an ambiguous answer: Can we talk some more?' "

But where and under what pretext? Not in fishbowl Washington.

So Bandar flew to Pakistan "disguised" in the improbable role of the leader of a large Saudi petrochemical delegation out shopping for new markets. The initial talks in Beijing in July 1985 were tough and had nothing to do with the missiles. Bandar had to deal with the "Taiwan hang-up," the standard Chinese refusal to do business with any country having diplomatic ties to Taiwan, as Saudi Arabia did. Two days of intensive talks failed to break the impasse. The Chinese were insisting the Saudis break off diplomatic relations with Taipei.

Bandar says he finally told his Chinese host, "If we sell our friends so cheap, why do you want to be our friends?"

The missile deal was struck, with the Saudis maintaining their embassy in Taiwan. The Showdown

The Saudis managed to keep the Chinese-missile purchase a secret from CIA spy satellites and agents for almost two years -- until early 1988, well after the missiles had arrived in the kingdom under various ruses.

When the secret finally got out that March -- that Saudi Arabia had purchased Chinese CSS-2 ballistic missiles with a range of over 1,500 miles and capable of carrying nuclear warheads -- a major crisis broke out. Once again, Bandar found himself on the hot seat. The U.S. government told him the missiles had to be sent back to China, while Israel began moving its aircraft.

Bandar remembers especially vividly a showdown with Gen. Colin Powell, then national security adviser to Reagan, over those missiles. His message to Powell from the king was that if Israel attacked, Saudi Arabia would retaliate with the Chinese missiles.

As the Saudis began mobilizing their aircraft, Powell called Bandar from his home around midnight to ask: "What the hell is going on? Your air force is all moving north."

Bandar replied, "I told you, we have absolutely no incentive to go against the Israelis, but we are so scared that we will retaliate if attacked."

Powell asked Bandar to come to his Fort Myer house immediately, while he called the White House and Tel Aviv. Finally, both Israel and Saudi Arabia agreed to declare that their air forces were just engaged in "nighttime exercises," and they both stood down.

"That was something I can't forget because it's like we came to the brink," Bandar said.

In an interview, Powell laughingly confirmed Bandar's global reach in Washington: "I was always finding him in places where I didn't expect him to be. I had to cut off his contacts sometimes. I was wondering when I would find him in the Operations Room!" Powell confirms the tense meeting in his home that night in 1988, and the eventual outcome. He said, however, that Bandar may be overstating the depth of the crisis: "I don't remember planes in the air. I don't remember it being that close to war." Coming to Terms With Gorbachev

It is well known that during the Soviet Union's ill-fated adventure in Afghanistan, Saudis and Americans shared the bill to purchase billions of dollars of arms for the Afghan mujaheddin. What has not been told before is Bandar's confrontation in the Kremlin with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1988. He went there to deliver a joint U.S.-Saudi message to Gorbachev, he says: Get out of Afghanistan.

Bandar says his instructions were to offer the Soviets a face-saving way to withdraw their troops through a formal agreement that the United States and Saudi Arabia would help broker.

At one point, Gorbachev tried to show how much he knew about the "covert" Saudi aid program to the Afghan rebels, citing the Soviet estimate of the cost of the operation at $200 million.

"I said to him, you are absolutely wrong, Mr. President."

"My information is solid," retorted Gorbachev.

"I said, You are wrong. We are paying $500 million, not $200 million, and we're willing to pay a billion if you don't get out of Afghanistan.' "

At that point, Bandar says, Gorbachev suggested he and Bandar go for a walk in the halls of the Kremlin, alone -- away from the array of hovering Soviet generals. Gorbachev thanked Bandar for his candor.

"He said, You have a deal. Let's work it out. . . . "

In April 1988, the Soviets signed the accords that would lead to the withdrawal of all Soviet troops by February 1989 -- one month ahead of the deadline promised to Bandar.

Bandar has one lasting souvenir of his Afghan diplomacy -- a picture in his embassy office of Reagan and Gorbachev that both leaders signed with an identical inscription -- "Trust but Verify."

That was Reagan's famous slogan for dealing with Gorbachev, who apparently felt the same way about Reagan. The Invasion of Kuwait

Of all the moments of high drama in Bandar's career here, none would match Aug. 2, 1990, when he met President Bush in the White House to discuss the fate of his kingdom after Iraq's invasion of neighboring Kuwait. His mission was to ascertain if the United States was really ready to commit its military might to defend the kingdom against a possible Iraqi thrust. It was a touchy point; in 1979, the United States had caused a major diplomatic embarrassment when it dispatched aircraft to "protect" the kingdom against Iran -- but then announced, while the planes were in the air, that they were not armed. Iran was amused; Saudi Arabia was not.

The night Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bandar was in London on the way to China for a vacation with his family.

Like April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad blamed for leading Saddam Hussein to believe Washington wouldn't oppose his invasion, Bandar had been blindsided. In a remarkable diplomatic gaffe, he totally misread the Iraqi leader's intentions. He had reassured Margaret Thatcher there would be no attack.

But unlike Glaspie, whose career was ruined, nothing bad happened to Bandar -- beyond a rather snide phone call from Washington that woke him in London. He had told the Americans that he thought Saddam was just "fooling around and posturing" and now someone was on the phone wondering whether his opinion might be changing now that Iraqi tanks are "halfway across Kuwait."

The king ordered him back to Washington to see Bush. Bandar and Bush faced a Catch-22 diplomatic dilemma: King Fahd was afraid to make a formal request for help unless Bush made a commitment to massive U.S. military assistance. But Bush couldn't legally give any commitment unless the Saudis first asked for one.

Bush didn't know it, but the Saudis were becoming increasingly alarmed and desperate throughout the day of Aug. 2. The Iraqis had three times sent their tanks "by mistake" across the southern Kuwaiti border into a so-called "neutral zone" abutting the kingdom itself. The area was a natural invasion route into Saudi Arabia.

Twice, the Saudis had used their hot line to the Iraqi military command and gotten an apology followed by quick withdrawals. But on the third incursion, the Iraqis didn't even bother to answer the telephone. It had gone dead.

The decisive meeting with Bush is etched in Bandar's mind.

Bandar had already known Bush for nine years by then -- back to the days Bush was Reagan's vice president -- and regarded him "almost like a buddy." According to Bandar, Bush suddenly appeared in the midst of Bandar's meeting at the White House with Brent Scowcroft, the president's national security adviser. They were at an impasse over how to get around the U.S. need for a formal Saudi request.

"There was George Bush. And in his old awkward way, he leaned against the wall, his hands sort of folded like this. There was a touch of sadness to his face and he said Hi' or something to that effect. And we all got up. He said to me, You know, Bandar, it hurts when your friends don't trust you.'

"I said to him, Mr. President, oh, we trust you. This is nothing personal. This is my country's survival that probably depends on this. It's very simple. If you tell me what you can do, then I can tell you what is our position. . . . We need to know how far you're willing to go.' "

Then, he said, Bush extended his hand to him and said, "If you ask for help from the United States, we will go all the way with you."

"There, the hair on my hands stood up," recalled Bandar. "You really felt the weight of the moment. After all, this is not the president of Haiti. This is the president of the United States of America committing. I moved and put my hand on his and I shook hands with him." Letting Down Little Rock

Bandar missed his chance to get to know Bill Clinton the way he had known Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. The times were no longer right; the circumstances weren't the same. In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, there was no crisis or common security threat of a similar magnitude to bring them together. Indeed, Clinton came into office on a pledge to place domestic affairs ahead of foreign affairs.

Bandar and Clinton got off on the wrong foot. It happened when Clinton was still Arkansas governor and even before he became a presidential candidate.

Since 1989, the University of Arkansas had been trying to raise $23 million to establish a center for Middle East studies. Its authorities turned to Clinton for help and Clinton, who had known the Saudi security chief, Prince Turki, as a Georgetown classmate, turned to various of his Saudi connections. They pledged $3 million but that left the university $20 million short.

So in early 1991, Clinton decided he would go knock on Bandar's door directly for the remaining $20 million. Bandar had made contributions before in the millions of dollars to the favorite charities of American presidents and first ladies. But never anything of that size and never to an obscure governor from a backwater state like Arkansas.

Besides, Clinton kept calling for an appointment in the middle of the Persian Gulf War when Bandar had other things on his mind.

Bandar concedes he didn't take Clinton all that seriously back in 1990. "I don't think even prophets knew that Bill Clinton was going to run for president, let alone be elected," he said.

So twice, Bandar canceled appointments and then he forgot the third one, and only had time to see Clinton briefly. Bandar sent the request back home to the Saudi Ministry of Education and promptly forgot all about it -- until Clinton emerged as the Democratic presidential nominee.

Somehow that jogged Bandar's memory. In October 1992, a month before the presidential elections, Bandar got word from Riyadh that the $20 million grant to the university had been approved.

The money didn't reach the university until January 1994. And Bandar's relationship with Clinton never developed into as close a one as he had enjoyed with the previous three presidents. Bandar doesn't call Clinton his "buddy." A Brush With Death

But it wasn't only -- and maybe not even primarily -- Clinton's election that soured Bandar on Washington and touched off his midlife crisis. It was an accident in March 1992.

At the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that year, Bandar was stuck in Washington on business while his wife, Haifa, and their eight children were in Jiddah on vacation. One evening, two of the children -- Fahd, 4, and Nora, 7 -- set out to visit Bandar's mother for dinner together with their nannies. Their chauffeured car hardly got outside the walls of the compound before a car slammed into it.

The chauffeur and one of the nannies died instantly, but the other lived long enough to get Fahd and Nora out of the car and safely deposited on a nearby sidewalk. Then the nanny collapsed and died, leaving the two children alone. Passersby rushed Fahd and Nora to a nearby military hospital, but nobody knew whose children they were. Meanwhile, Haifa learned there had been an accident and went to see what had happened, only to discover that it was their own car. All the passengers were killed, she was told.

In fact, Fahd and Nora were badly bruised but otherwise unharmed.

Bandar still remembers the moment he got the news. He was alone at his McLean home watching CNN when the phone rang and Haifa recounted how Fahd and Nora had miraculously escaped death.

Bandar was deeply shaken. He began reading the Koran for consolation. As soon as he could, Bandar took the whole family to his ranch in Aspen, where together they counted their blessings.

"You had the holy month. You had this beautiful area on top of the mountains in Colorado. You had these two kids who were not supposed to be alive. It does something to you. It really affected me dramatically ever since."

Bandar calls it a "defining moment" of his life. Crippling Pain

The sense of mortality has closed in on Bandar from other directions as well.

In February 1995, he went into the hospital for the third operation on his chronic back ailment from his 1977 airplane accident. This time it was really serious. By late 1994, he had almost lost the use of his right leg. Even with a cane, walking had become excruciating.

He was suffering from a compression of several vertebrae that was slowly killing the nerves running between them. During an operation to carve out more space in the bone, a surgeon found the nerves so pinched they were turning blue. Bandar was told he was within six months of losing the leg altogether. The Invisible Ambassador'

It was a cold, snowy February day this year. Bandar had just broken the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast at his spacious Chain Bridge Road mansion in McLean and was wearing a flowing djellaba -- relaxed, in a philosophic mood and feeling distant from the diplomatic hurly-burly across the Potomac River. His only wish was to be even farther away -- Aspen or Riyadh.

"I have been in this country too long," he mused. "I have been in this country longer than half the people have been in Congress now."

"We won the Cold War . . . we beat communism. We beat socialism. We beat Saddam Hussein. We have the {Middle East} peace process going. We won almost everything. You'd think we would be happy, relaxed and having fun. The tragedy is we are not. Life is less exciting, boring."

Bandar makes it clear he's just as bored with Washington as he is with the post-Cold War world. The capital of the world's only superpower has become too serious, too polarized -- the right too right, the religious too religious, the nonbelievers too righteous in their disbelief. It's all work and no fun any longer.

The worst of his "work" is being dean of the diplomatic corps, a job he says he wouldn't recommend to anybody. Too many obligations. Too many of the same faces at parties on the social circuit. "It gets to be boring because the same crowd moves from one place to another. After a while, you feel you're talking to yourself." Bandar is absent from his job so often now that other diplomats and State Department protocol officials have dubbed him "the invisible ambassador." At the Crossroads

In early March, Bandar was back at his Aspen ranch. A dozen horses were running about in a field the size of a landing strip.

The sheer size and sumptuousness of the ranch has raised eyebrows in Washington's gossipy social circles, about how Bandar was able to afford such a multi-million-dollar luxury on an ambassador's salary. The prince says his Aspen hideaway was "a gift" from the king and his father for his long years of service to the kingdom.

Still, with the royal family under increasing scrutiny from angry Saudi Islamic fundamentalists -- including allegations of corruption, land grabs and handsome commissions -- Bandar's high-flying life style has not entirely escaped notice. His name has even surfaced in two cases brought before U.S. courts by employees of American firms working in the kingdom who turned whistle-blowers. They alleged that shell companies were being used to launder commissions back to members of the Saudi royal family. Bandar himself was not a defendant in either case.

It is all wearying to him now. All of it: the innuendo, the diplomatic duties, the whole Washington thing.

Asked what he wants to do with his life now, Bandar ponders the question. He lets slip that he's offered his resignation to his king twice now, only to have it rejected twice.

"I really need a timeout," he says, finally. It is an extraordinary admission from a man like Bandar. "It seems to me that 30 years went by like there's no break, just one thing after the other. It would be nice to get the opportunity to pull back and reflect on all these years, see where one is emotionally, intellectually, spend more time with my family. "How did I go from a mud house with an unpaved street outside my house," he asks, "to flying supersonic jets and landing at an airport that's probably the best airport in the world? How? What happened?" He is told that it sounds as though he wants to write a book. Bandar's half brother and rival, Prince Khalid, last year published his memoirs of the Gulf War in "Desert Warrior."

"Not really," he says. If you write a book, he says, you have to tell everything or just be "gossipy," and he doesn't want to do either. "I don't think kissing and telling is exciting for me, to be honest." So what does excite him? Bandar offers no answer.

In the nuanced world of diplomacy, no answer is often an answer itself. CAPTION: Prince Bandar says he's offered his resignation twice. CAPTION: Bandar's Aspen home, the size of the White House, has 55,000 square feet and 26 bathrooms. CAPTION: Prince Bandar in his office: "I was used to a Washington where they knew when to play and when to work." CAPTION: The ambassador with the grizzly bear that charged him twice before he shot it in Alaska. CAPTION: During a long career in the diplomatic service, Bandar has rubbed shoulders with such American leaders as Robert J. Dole, top, in 1990; Ronald Reagan, in 1983; and George Bush, 1990.