"I'm not big on losing. Somebody may have mentioned that to you."

James Arthur Johnson is clearly a changed man. When he was a Democratic Party operative, he was very big on losing. From 1968 through 1984, he worked for no fewer than five failed presidential campaigns -- his last as chairman of the disastrous effort that ended in Walter Mondale's 49-state defeat to incumbent Ronald Reagan.

At which point Jim Johnson quit presidential politics. Out of the public eye, he pursued a quiet career in business.

Now, nearly 15 years later, the 54-year-old Johnson has won the Washington equivalent of the Triple Crown, crossing the finish line as one of the most powerful men in the United States.

As chairman of three preeminent institutions in the nation's capital -- the government-sponsored home mortgage behemoth known as Fannie Mae, the peerless think tank known as the Brookings Institution and the mammoth performing arts emporium known as the Kennedy Center -- he has positioned himself to exert enormous influence over the country's economic, intellectual and cultural lives.

And, while he's at it, he's getting seriously rich.

"The chairman of the universe," Johnson's former campaign colleague Harold Ickes calls the man he met 30 years ago in Eugene McCarthy's crusade against the Vietnam War.

"He's the face of the Washington national establishment," says syndicated columnist Mark Shields, who toiled alongside Johnson in Edmund Muskie's luckless 1972 presidential quest. "If Jim had a Republican bookend in Washington, it would be James Baker -- although I think that Jim has eclipsed even the former secretary of state."

"The thing speaks for itself: If you're chairman of Fannie Mae, the Kennedy Center and Brookings, you're an extraordinarily powerful person in this town," says power broker and occasional job counselor Vernon Jordan, himself a paragon of Establishment prowess.

Yet Johnson, an otherwise unflappable descendant of sturdy Norwegian farmers, squirms at the prospect of being branded a member of the "Establishment." It's as though the very notion of a human hierarchy -- in which he happens to occupy the summit -- is an affront to his small-town-Minnesota egalitarian essence.

"When I hear the word Establishment' I always think more of society' than anything else," Johnson protests over a no-frills turkey club sandwich at Cafe Deluxe in Cleveland Park -- the lunch spot he prefers to the executive dining room at Fannie Mae's palatial headquarters nearby. "What is the Establishment? I guess it's the people who are very prominent in national life, and that's due to the fact that the national government is here."

Okay, he may own a Tudor mansion in Massachusetts Avenue Heights and a vacation house in Sun Valley and tool around town in a chauffeured Town Car and fly here and there in a time-share private jet.

"But I don't go to social events and parties if I don't have things I need to do there," he says. "I'd rather go out to dinner with friends. I'm not necessarily a fixture of the Georgetown social set."

So here's another thing Jim Johnson isn't big on: Giving folks too big an impression that he's big on winning. Joe Plutocrat

To his many admirers, Johnson is -- first and foremost -- a good guy. A generous and loyal friend. A devoted husband (to former Mondale press secretary Maxine Isaacs, a public policy lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government) and a doting father (to their 11-year-old son, Alfred). In short, a man of impeccable judgment and deeply held convictions.

Sure, he makes an astonishing amount of money. In 1996 -- the most recent year for which the figure is available -- it was an estimated $7.2 million in cash, stock options and other compensation. But he also gives a lot of it away to numerous worthy causes, including around $1.5 million each to the Kennedy Center and Brookings.

He doesn't seek power, his fans say; power finds him. And when it does, he uses it for the good of all concerned. He is, in these accounts, the quintessential public servant. Much like his late father, Alfred Ingvald Johnson, who ran a modestly prosperous real estate business after World War II while helping to launch Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party -- a mix of back-room politicking and Scandinavian good government. "A.I." Johnson spent two decades in the state legislature, ending up as speaker of the House.

But to hear Jim Johnson's friends tell it, A.I.'s son seems to have risen from the prairie town of Benson (pop. 4,000) to the vertiginous heights of Washington without visibly throwing an elbow.

"Jim Johnson deserves to have positions of responsibility because of the way he treats it," says Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), whom Johnson recruited in 1972 to the Muskie campaign. "You just sense that not only is he going to make the right decision, he's going to do it for the right reasons."

"The amazing thing about Jim is that he's a fiercely competitive person, but you never really glimpse that because he's such a gentleman," says NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who along with her husband, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, is a pal of Johnson and Isaacs. Mitchell, who met Johnson in 1980 while covering Jimmy Carter's losing reelection bid, adds: "I've never seen him cross the line, be abusive or show any of the normal characteristics of the craziness of campaigns."

"He's the smoothest -- not the slickest -- person I've ever met in politics," says Commerce Secretary William Daley, a friend since their days organizing Illinois for Mondale. "He's also about as smart a person as I've ever met in politics. And as tough as anybody I've ever seen. He does not suffer fools. He's Norwegian, so he doesn't blow his stack and throw things and jump up and down. But if he looks at you the wrong way, most people are scared to death. And he's subtle. He'd cut your {expletives} off, and you wouldn't even know he was doing it. And when he was finished, you wouldn't even know it was him."

Johnson's detractors constitute a smaller group, and none would speak on the record for this article. Never mind his pro bono work at the Kennedy Center and Brookings, they say; he wields his considerable clout mainly to protect and defend Fannie Mae's congressionally mandated business advantages. These include substantial tax breaks, much lower capital maintenance standards than are required for purely private institutions (allowing Fannie Mae to put more of its money to work) and the ability to borrow at below-market interest rates.

Fannie Mae, which Congress defines as a "government-supported enterprise," attempts to portray itself as a private corporation like any other. Last year, it stopped calling itself the Federal National Mortgage Association, its official name since 1938, when Congress chartered it to spur home ownership by ensuring market liquidity through the buying and selling of mortgages.

But it is decidedly not a private corporation like any other (with the exception of Freddie Mac, a slightly smaller rival). Despite soaring stock prices and net income in the $3 billion range, Fannie Mae is exempt from state and local income taxes -- which would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars for the District of Columbia alone. And because Fannie Mae enjoys an implicit government guarantee of its debt, it can borrow billions at rock-bottom rates, gaining competitive advantage and driving up profits.

This government-created institution controls one-fifth of the trillion-dollar American mortgage market and bills itself as the world's largest financial services company -- which would be formidable enough for most members of Congress. But in his seven years as chairman and CEO, Johnson has redoubled Fannie Mae's power with a sophisticated political operation second to none.

On the public relations front, Johnson trumpets his politically irresistible "trillion-dollar commitment," Fannie Mae's promise -- as a press release puts it -- "to provide targeted mortgage financing for 10 million homes for families most in need by the end of the decade."

In the last 3 1/2 years, Johnson has inaugurated 29 so-called "partnership offices" in cities and rural communities nationwide, dispensing largess in high-profile ceremonies at which leading incumbent politicians can bask in Johnson's reflected glory. In October 1994, for instance, Johnson traveled to Boston to announce $1.5 billion in "affordable financing" for 20,000 families -- just as his friend Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts was fighting for his political life in a Senate race against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The featured public official at Fannie Mae's event: Kennedy, of course.

Through his philanthropic arm, the Fannie Mae Foundation, Johnson spreads further goodwill -- to the tune of $20 million annually for neighborhood groups around the country. At a typical recent event, billed as the "Help the Homeless Check Presentation Ceremony," Johnson showed up in the Senate Caucus Room and, in assembly-line fashion, handed out dozens of envelopes containing $2.5 million for Washington area community groups. As the lucky recipients queued up for their money, Sens. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) and Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Reps. Connie Morella (R-Md.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.) sang Johnson's praises. Give and Take

Then there's Johnson's personal beneficence. According to public records, he and his wife have donated more than $100,000 to scores of House and Senate candidates since 1992, including such key Republicans as New York Rep. Rick Lazio, a member of the House Banking Committee, which oversees Fannie Mae; Ohio Rep. Ralph Regula, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that controls the Kennedy Center's funding; Florida Rep. Bill McCollum, vice chairman of the Banking Committee, and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D'Amato of New York. Through such exquisitely targeted generosity, Johnson has maximized his political bang-for-buck ratio.

Behind the scenes, Johnson works aggressively to counter criticism and beat back threats. Last year, after the online magazine Slate published an attack on Fannie Mae's federal subsidies, Johnson, who calls the Slate article "unbelievable trash," dispatched an aggrieved letter to William Neukom, the general counsel of Slate's parent company, Microsoft -- with whom he'd socialized in Sun Valley. (Alas, like many Microsoft customers, Johnson never received a reply.)

On another occasion two years ago, Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.), chairman of the House Banking subcommittee that oversees Fannie Mae, announced hearings on the issue of "privatization" -- that is, whether the company should relinquish its government-granted advantages. But by the time the hearings were staged a few weeks later, the focus had been changed to the blander topic of "oversight." Various news accounts pointed out that in the interim, Johnson had managed to host a fund-raiser for Baker at his home.

Johnson stoutly denies any connection between the fund-raiser and the hearing change. "That's a little far down the Sidney Blumenthal {conspiratorial} line of analysis," he says, alluding to the presidential adviser and former journalist who in 1984 wrote a widely read New Republic attack on Johnson's man, Mondale, as the candidate of the "special interests." Johnson adds: "I have always supported Richard Baker."

Even House Banking Committee Chairman James Leach (R-Iowa), a vocal critic of Fannie Mae's governmental ties, seems resigned to the impact of Johnson's persuasive powers. "I'm not a fan of the Fannie Mae charter," he says, "but I'm a charter member of the Jim Johnson fan club."

Still, Johnson isn't always victorious. Last summer, Fannie Mae's proposal to enter the mortgage insurance business suffered a protracted death on Capitol Hill after a leaked memo portrayed the plan as an attempt to grab more profits. And Johnson has been trading bureaucratic blows with Andrew Cuomo, the secretary of housing and urban development, over Cuomo's ambition to put the Federal Housing Administration in direct competition with Fannie Mae's mortgage business.

So far, Johnson has effectively thwarted Cuomo's effort to raise FHA loan limits to Fannie Mae levels, snuffing out brush fires of support wherever he finds them. Recently, according to sources, Johnson complained to Marc Smith, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, after that group deigned to put in a good word for Cuomo's initiative. One account of the telephone call had it ending in a shouting match.

Cuomo -- whose agency has regulatory responsibility for Fannie Mae -- makes no secret of his displeasure. Earlier this month, without alerting Johnson beforehand, he awarded Fannie Mae's rival, Freddie Mac, the authority to underwrite mortgages in cyberspace. "Automated underwriting," as the feature is called, is a capability Fannie Mae had also wanted.

As if to add insult to injury, Cuomo invited Johnson's Freddie Mac counterpart, Leland Brendsel, to join him in a celebratory news conference at HUD headquarters. When a Fannie Mae press officer told him about the HUD action, Johnson stoutly predicted that Fannie Mae will soon receive "automated underwriting," too (there was a reporter present), but waved his hand in apparent irritation, turned and stalked away. Cuomo declined to be interviewed.

Johnson's lobbying skills and open checkbook are the reasons, one detractor says, that "Fannie Mae has a federal license to make money."

Washington pooh-bah Robert Strauss, who has known Johnson since the 1970s, says such sniping comes with the territory. "You can't do as much as Jim Johnson has done, particularly in a community like Washington, without there being a certain amount of jealousy or resentment or questioning," he says. "He certainly is the subject of a good deal of that. I know of no justification for it other than human nature." An Appraisal

Sitting before a smoldering fire in his opulent office, his meticulously polished oxfords propped against a glass-topped coffee table, Johnson stretches out his lanky frame and discourses on . . . himself.

It is, Johnson acknowledges, a "very non-Norwegian" thing to do. According to one friend, federal budget director Franklin Raines, a former Fannie Mae vice chairman, Johnson's character is cloaked "in Scandinavian reserve. Underneath that is Minnesota reserve." Any search for Johnson's inner core seems a lot like the Minnesota pastime of ice fishing.

"There was no touching, no kissing, no I-love-yous,' " Johnson says, describing the home life that A.I. and his schoolteacher wife, the former Adeline Rasmussen, created for Jim and his older sister, Marilyn. "No Let's sit down and work this out, let's sit down and talk it through' kind of stuff. On the other hand, there could not have been a warmer, more protective, more supportive unspoken environment. If you go to the maximum of what you get through the unspoken, that's where we were. If you go to the furthest you can get in not touching and not speaking, I think we were there."

Johnson obviously flourished under these minimalist conditions. From early boyhood he was a model student, a hard worker, a good athlete and a natural politician. He was perennially elected mayor of "Kid Day," a Benson town tradition, and later at the University of Minnesota's sprawling campus of 50,000 souls, he ran for student body president and won as a mere sophomore.

Nothing if not precocious, Johnson took a leadership position in the liberal-activist National Student Association, traveled to Africa on a Ford Foundation grant and got his master's at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School before he was 26. He was so seamlessly successful that the abrupt end of his four-year marriage -- to a fellow Princetonian whose father worked for the Ford Foundation -- came as a shock.

It was enormously difficult for Johnson to absorb this first major blow in his life. Even now, as he recalls the task of informing his parents about the impending divorce, a flicker of pure grief crosses his coolly composed features.

"Yeah, I was embarrassed at the failure," Johnson says. "I don't think there was any secret about that." But, Johnson continues in an even tone, "she subsequently got married to someone else, I think, a couple of years later. We didn't have the complications of children and visitation rights and all that. And, you know, it became history fast." He adds: "I have no capacity, aside from these kinds of conversations, to look back."

Johnson avoided military service through a student deferment. As the Vietnam War divided the country, he threw himself into national Democratic politics. At a now-legendary 1969 conclave of antiwar activists in Martha's Vineyard, Johnson bunked with a 22-year-old Georgetown University graduate named Bill Clinton. "Jim was the decent man of integrity," recalls another attendee, David Mixner. "And Bill was the charmer."

The following summer, Johnson was in Washington organizing the antiwar Project Purse Strings and renewed his acquaintance with Clinton, who'd stopped in to say hello. He also had dinner with Clinton's Yale Law School friend, a Chicagoan named Hillary Rodham. The consensus among their contemporaries was that either Clinton or Johnson would be president someday.

But Johnson chose the path of the high-level operative, hitching his wagon to one presidential candidate after another in election cycle after election cycle. He worked in positions of increasing responsibility in the campaigns of McCarthy, Muskie, George McGovern, Carter and, finally, Mondale.

Johnson spent the Carter administration in the White House as the vice president's executive assistant. "In addition to being a good student of politics and people, Jim was broad-gauged, always looking at the big picture," Mondale recalls. "He was a first-rate strategic thinker, the kind of person who sees past the details to the broader questions. I don't think he was ever involved in the petty stuff. I handled that."

Maybe. But Johnson's colleagues still marvel at how deftly he prevented Dick Moe -- who had been Mondale's vice presidential chief of staff -- from threatening Johnson's own ambitions to head up the 1984 campaign. In the end, Mondale loyalist Moe had a minimal role in the effort and a bitter residue remains -- notwithstanding Moe's avowal that "Jim and I put all that behind us years ago."

Could Moe's experience have been an example of what Commerce Secretary Daley is talking about -- the barely noticeable quick cut?

"It was 15 years ago," Johnson says dismissively. "One thing you should keep in mind is that Mondale's great-grandfather and my grandmother came from towns 14 miles away from each other in Norway. And had Mondale detected that I was positioning myself or being at all aggressive, that in itself could have been a disqualification. You have to understand: This is a whole different culture."

The subject still pains Mondale. "I never understood it," he says. "I'm very sorry because they're both very good people."

By today's savage standards, the subsequent campaign went smoothly enough, other than the fact that Mondale lost in a landslide. Johnson, who describes himself as "a firm believer in data," assured his candidate two weeks before the vote that this would be the result. On Election Night, Mondale's campaign chairman was dry-eyed -- already focused on the future. Networking

There was his marriage to Maxine Isaacs in 1985, the birth of their son and a new career in business. In the early 1980s Johnson had already started his own Washington consulting company, Public Strategies, with his Carter administration colleague Richard Holbrooke. And now he followed Holbrooke to Wall Street as an investment banker at Shearson Lehman Brothers.

Around 1985, at a small Washington dinner party thrown by their mutual friend Betty Ann Ottinger, he met David Maxwell, then chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae.

"I found him interesting and funny and good company," Maxwell recalls. "At the time we needed some analytical work done at Fannie Mae to help chart our future course. There was a lot of pressure from the Reagan administration to give up our federal ties and privatize the company. People like {Reagan budget director} David Stockman were very determined. We just wanted to take a look at exactly what this might mean and whether it was possible to do it."

Maxwell hired Shearson Lehman to do an exhaustive study of the implications of privatizing, with Johnson heading the project. The report's startling conclusion? "It was pretty unfeasible," Maxwell recalls. "To put it another way, at this point in time it was a pretty ridiculous proposition." Maxwell insists: "If the study had come out the other way, so be it. The result was not foreordained."

By this time, Maxwell and Johnson were intimate friends. Maxwell, now 67, likens their relationship to that of older and younger brothers. In 1990, as he was planning his exit (and a controversial $20 million lump-sum retirement package), Maxwell recruited Johnson to be Fannie Mae's vice chairman and the heir apparent. He ignored complaints from President Bush's people, notably Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, that Johnson was a partisan Democrat who shouldn't be given this plum position. Johnson got the top job at Fannie Mae in 1991.

In the job, he has stressed Fannie Mae's original mission to promote home ownership among low- and moderate-income Americans. In terms of profits and stock prices, the company has performed spectacularly under his stewardship. Recently, the Wall Street Journal ranked Fannie Mae the fourth most successful firm of the last 10 years among the nation's 100 biggest companies. Johnson has proved himself the consummate networker, hiring executives from every political persuasion (from senior communications vice president John Buckley, a conservative Republican, to vice chairman Jamie Gorelick, a liberal Democrat) while serving on a handful of prestigious outside boards.

In 1995, Johnson was named chairman of the Brookings board, and the following year he took the helm at the Kennedy Center. At both institutions he has made his presence felt.

At the Kennedy Center -- where by one authoritative account he is the largest individual donor -- Johnson has concentrated on removing strains of elitism from the performing arts by making them more accessible to a wider and more diverse audience, principally through free concerts in the center's Grand Foyer under the aegis of the year-old Millennium Stage. Johnson arranged funding for the effort from the Fannie Mae Foundation and, with his corporate connections, from such local businesses as The Washington Post Co.

More than 100,000 people have attended the nightly Millennium Stage performances. "I find that thrilling," Johnson says. "I don't believe that art appreciation is in some way preconditioned on your being an artist. I believe people can appreciate all different forms of the performing arts with more or less sophistication, and if people appreciate them with somewhat less sophistication, I am not even remotely offended by that."

Johnson is himself an avid theatergoer who played the trombone in his high school band, but he's no artist, and so far has made little effort to provide the center with an artistic vision. He leaves that task to Kennedy Center President Lawrence Wilker, focusing his attention instead on the center's organizational and financial health. He takes a strong hand, for instance, in such details as contract negotiations with National Symphony Orchestra musicians and taps into his formidable network of corporate money to support the center's operations.

Johnson has also focused on keeping the Washington Opera from abandoning the Kennedy Center -- a threat that has been receding since last year, when the opera company acquired the downtown building that used to house the Woodward & Lothrop department store. Top Kennedy Center and Washington Opera officials are discussing ways to provide better, more spacious facilities to keep the opera where it is.

"I think I know something about leading institutions, and I believe very strongly that there is a spiritual power that comes from the arts that's wonderful and significant," he says. "My involvement really comes from that as opposed to I believe that I can alter the course of the concert season or I can shape avant-garde theater in a way that could never have been imagined by another chairman.' " In music, Johnson adds, "My tastes are very broad. I don't consider myself a terribly competent consumer or critic."

At Brookings, he has pushed its scholars to have a more timely impact on the policymaking process, much as its conservative counterpart, the Heritage Foundation, became an influential clearinghouse for ideas and talent during the 12 years of the Reagan and Bush administrations. To bolster the think tank's standing, Johnson has directed Brookings to pay more attention to housing and urban issues, launching -- with funding from the Fannie Mae Foundation -- the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, and personally endowing a $1.5 million chair in memory of his parents.

"The one thing to say about the last 14 years," muses Johnson's friend Mark Shields, "is that Jim finally found a candidate as disciplined, as committed, as skillful, as thorough in his attention to detail and as intellectually capable as he is -- namely himself." CAPTION: As chairman of the Kennedy Center, James Johnson has worked to make its programs accessible to a wider audience. CAPTION: The Brookings Institution is another entry on the Johnson resume. CAPTION: Fannie Mae headquarters on Wisconsin Avenue, the seat of Johnson's power. CAPTION: One of James Johnson's seats of power is a wing chair by the fireplace in his Fannie Mae office. "I think I know something about leading institutions," he says. CAPTION: James Johnson and his wife, Maxine Isaacs, arrive at the Kennedy Center in 1996.