For 10 excruciating months, until the end of May, David Bradley couldn't speak.

Robbed of his voice by a virus that required three throat operations, unsure if he would ever talk again, uprooted from his thriving consulting business, the Washington multimillionaire had plenty of time to think. He thought about the overarching importance of ideas, how they outlast institutions, how much of what people do is ultimately fleeting.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that after regaining his voice, Bradley devoted himself to the task of buying the Atlantic Monthly. He had made an earlier stab at persuading owner Mort Zuckerman to sell the 140-year-old magazine, but this time the little-known executive closed the deal, buying a journalistic brand name for about $10 million.

A courtly man with prematurely white hair who exudes a quiet intensity, Bradley, 46, seems uncomfortable with the burst of media attention surrounding his purchase. Ask him about his vision for the Atlantic and he says simply: "It's not yet clear to me that I've got something special to contribute to it."

He admits that his life has not unfolded quite as he planned: "When I first ventured into business, I had a vision I'd be astonishingly successful, sell the company and I'd be a young senator from the state of Maryland. It was an aspiration I held on to year after year. Eventually I came to the realization that I don't have that kind of leadership gift anyway. I'm not a big presence. I don't command a room."

If Bradley is unusually self-effacing, others are willing to brag for him, particularly staffers at his other publication, the National Journal.

"He inspired a lot of confidence that this was a thoughtful, sincere, gentle, nice man who I could sort of trust to do a good job," says Stuart Taylor, legal columnist for the niche magazine.

When Bradley was wooing him, Taylor mentioned that his daughter was taking riding lessons at Meadowbrook Stables, which Bradley owns. There was a joke about throwing a couple of horses into the deal. On the Saturday morning after Taylor signed a contract, two ponies showed up on his Northwest Washington lawn for his kids to ride that day.

Michael Kelly, named by Bradley as the new editor of the Atlantic, says that in 1997 he wasn't inclined to join the National Journal until Bradley invited him for a chat.

They spoke for seven hours. The next day, Bradley asked him back for a five-hour talk. Kelly signed on as a columnist and later became the Washington weekly's editor.

"He presented himself as a person who was dedicated to the idea that magazines, journalism, should be about wonderful writing and reporting, great editorial quality," Kelly says. "It was incredibly refreshing to me. . . . I decided to believe he was serious about this, that this wasn't just a line he was spinning."

Sitting in his spacious Watergate office with a stunning view of the Potomac River and the Kennedy Center, Bradley is the picture of the successful entrepreneur. But he describes his early business career as "13 years of mistakes."

A native Washingtonian who attended Sidwell Friends School and got his MBA at Harvard, Bradley was 26 when he decided to create the Advisory Board Co. His first move was to drop out of Georgetown Law School, though he got his degree later on. "I realized I did not have the intellectual persistence to go for a 1-in-10 shot at partner in a law firm," he says.

Bradley's father had started a nonprofit think tank at the Watergate; Bradley styled his firm as a for-profit think tank, launched on three card tables with three Princess phones in his mother's Watergate apartment. After five years, he was making $25,000.

In 1983, Bradley visited 40 top banks in three weeks, sometimes hitting three cities a day, to peddle his corporate research studies. He didn't make a single sale. "I just came back completely defeated by it," he says. But by reordering the business to provide ongoing research for fixed sums, Bradley won a long list of Fortune 500 clients.

Bradley was tenacious in his personal life as well. When he was 30, he was taken with a 19-year-old summer intern at his company, Katharine Brittain. He arranged a chance meeting at the Xerox machine and soon had one of his researchers check her out. It turned out that the Princeton freshman already had a boyfriend.

Undeterred, Bradley invented a project so he could stay in touch with Brittain when she went back to school. He asked her to produce a book on the best cities for college graduates to live in, for which she promptly hired 12 people.

Ten months later, Bradley got his first date by telling Brittain that a friend had Broadway theater tickets (and then scrambling to find such a person). After she graduated from college, they were married and now have three sons. The courtship had cost Bradley $60,000--the price of the book that was never published.

Splitting his 900-member company in half to form a second corporation, Corporate Executive Board Co., Bradley netted $142 million in February when that company's officials mounted an initial stock offering. So he hardly needs the Atlantic to be a major moneymaker. But he would like to restore some luster to a storied publication that is more respected than talked about.

Bradley maintains he has no ideological agenda, describing his politics as "uninterestingly middle of the road." Financially, at least, he is a Republican. Bradley has contributed the maximum $1,000 and is raising money for Elizabeth Dole's presidential campaign (she lives at the Watergate and he provided her office space for a while). In the 1996 campaign he gave $1,000 to GOP presidential contenders Bob Dole and Pete Wilson.

Bradley says he plans to leave the "heavy lifting" of shaping the Atlantic to Kelly, who replaces William Whitworth, the editor since 1980.

"This magazine has its own deeply rooted, well-established identity," Kelly says. "A new editor cannot, must not, come in and subvert that identity, torture the magazine into some new shape." A former editor of the New Republic, Kelly says the Atlantic is about "literature and ideas and writing. It is not about topicality or buzz or politics in the sense that the New Republic is."

Kelly will also be editor in chief of the National Journal, with his deputy, Charles Green, becoming editor. Although Bradley, Kelly and National Journal President John Fox Sullivan (who will hold the same title at the Atlantic) all live in Washington, Bradley says he has no current plans to move the Boston-based magazine here.

Addressing the Atlantic's staff of Whitworth loyalists Tuesday was a sobering moment for Bradley. "I've never walked into a room where my very arrival was a thing of unhappiness," he says, recalling his "earnest" address to the troops.

While Bradley says he'll eventually sell his consulting business and perhaps start a new magazine, he has no plans to use his media properties and his newly restored voice to speak out publicly. "My own gift is finding gifts in other people," he says.

CAPTION: Self-effacing Washington publisher and multimillionaire David Bradley.