He had been working hard for Jimmy Carter since 1976. Now at the end of another long day behind an imposing desk in Washington he took a few moments to speculate about the future. "You know what I'd like to do in Carter's second term?" he said. "I'd like to get myself an ambassadorship to someplace warm."

What a wonderful fantasy it is: The butler in full livery stands at the top of the marble staircase announcing the guests arriving at the diplomatic reception -- "The Prince of Ruritania, the Papal Nuncio, the Ambassador of the United States . . ."

With the aid of a bit of college French, a refresher course at Berlitz and the right connections in the White House, the perks of an ambassadorship could be yours -- the mansion, the servants, the limousines, the diplomatic receptions, the swallowtail coats and the secret cables from Washington. "Doonesbury" captured those longings when Garry Trudeau made Duke, that Hunter Thompson look-alike, an ambassador first to American Samoa and then to China, complete with a man-servant named MacArthur catering to his every need.

Sadly, international terrorism has cast a pall over such dreams. First, there was the assassination of Ambassador Adolph Dubs in Afghanistan last year. And now, the continuing and harrowing hostage crises in Iran and Colombia. Suddenly, American ambassadors have the life expectancy of stockcar race drivers. But every fantasy must have its dark side and the security fears have not eliminated the cachet of the title: ambassador.

Such were the myths I carried, along with my notebook, as I set off in early March to watch American diplomats at work and play in exotic foreign capitals. I found all those glamorous trappings of ambassadorial life, all right, but I also found, I'm sad to report, that as far as substance goes, life is pretty mundane at the top.

My travels took me to Portugal and Morocco -- two temperate countries vital to the security of the United States where the dollar and the U.S. ambassador still command respect. Portugal, which in the space of five years overthrew a dictatorship, flirted with Communism and transformed itself into a parliamentary democracy, is a NATO ally that controls the indispensable American bases in the Azores. Morocco, a monarchy embroiled in a war over the Western Sahara with the Algerian-backed Polisario guerrillas, is the only Arab country that supports Anwar Sadat's peace treaty with Israel.

Our men in Lisbon and Rabat represent the two poles of diplomatic service -- career foreign service officers and wealthy political appointees.

The careerist is Ambassador to Portugal Richard Bloomfield, the son of a New Deal bureaucrat. He joined the State Department in 1952, after a stint in the Air Force, following his graduation from the foreign service school at Georgetown University. This wry and intelligent 52-year-old diplomat spent two decades rising through the ranks of our embassies in Latin America before hitting the big time as ambassador to Ecuador in 1976. A year later Bloomfield was dispatched to Lisbon. When his tour of duty in Portugal is over in a year or so, the next step in his career may be a large embassy in South America or a desk job at the assistant secretary level at the State Department, but there's always the risk, in a bureaucracy with too many chiefs and too few Indians, that Portugal may be the capstone of his career.

Sixty-four-year-old Angier Biddle Duke, the product of a marriage between a great tobacco fortune and the Biddles of Philadelphia, is the archetypal political appointee. Morocco, where he has been ambassador since last December, is the latest in a string of diplomatic assignments that Duke has received from every Democratic president since Harry Truman named him envoy to El Salvador in 1952.

When Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, Duke, who had been chief of protocol in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, dreamed of putting on his striped pants one more time. Although Duke made all the requisite moves, all he got from Jimmy Carter was a note thanking him for his "telegram and promise of support." Duke, who had wanted "very much to be helpful" and believed that he "was on the Carter team," grew "reconciled" to his life in New York as a wealthy former ambassador.

But he got a second chance last fall when Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was thrashing about trying to replace a career ambassador who had run afoul of the Moroccan monarch.Duke was an obvious choice to placate King Hassan II (or "H.M." as Duke calls him) because they had a friendship that began with a state visit to Washington during the Kennedy administration and included a private conversation in Morocco in early 1977 when the king, with startling prescience, predicted that the time was ripe for peace between the Arabs and Israel.

All the cliches of diplomatic life were there as I watched Bloomfield and Duke go through their paces -- ambassadorial residences of such splendor that they make Georgetown look like public housing; six-course dinners served by a phalanx of servants; secret meetings at the foreign ministry; bulletproof limousines and omnipresent bodyguards.

But beneath the glittering surface, there was also the humdrum world of bureaucratic business as usual -- meetings, endless meetings, to decide the wordings of press releases; ceremonial visits to Agency for International Development projects and dam dedications; worries about budget cuts in Washington and the morale of embassy secretaries and file clerks; reams of cables on phosphate production and cork exports to be sent back to Washington; stilted conversation at tedious diplomatic dinners; nursemaiding roving congressional delegations and obscure bureaucrats from Washington; following the news through day-old copies of the International Herald Tribune. All this was coupled with the awareness that, despite your prestige as a U.S. ambassador in a foreign capital, as far as Washington is concerned, you are nothing more than a mid-level administrator in the huge State Department bureaucracy. "MY MAN, MOHAMMAD"

Villa Mirador rates a footnote in history as the residence of Winston Churchill during the wartime Casablanca Conference. Today it is the home of Consul General Peter Sebastian, the foreign service officer who runs the American embassy's branch office in the commercial capital of Morocco. (Sebastian's deputy gets to live in the villa where President Roosevelt stayed.) The copy of Town and Country magazine in the entry foyer, the map room filled with Churchill memorabilia, the Moroccan rugs on the floors, the fresh flowers everywhere, the waiters in white and the maids in pink -- all are fitting symbols for the luxury of American life abroad.

It was here that I first met Angier Duke, a slight man clad in the best New York custom tailoring. He had stopped off for lunch enroute from Rabat to Marrakech, 200 miles from the Moroccan capital. Duke was to have been my host that evening, but that was before the king had summoned the entire diplomatic community to be present in Marrakech for the formal opening of the meeting of the Jerusalem Committee of the Islamic Conference ("Al Quods" as it is called in Arabic). The informal lunch -- which began with a caviar-and-egg course and continued through steaks served on a bed of potato pancakes -- was my consolation prize.

Duke was clearly nervous about what might be expected of him in Marrakech, because the proceedings would be in Arabic, a language our ambassador does not understand.

"I'm afraid that I'll be sitting there, smiling and nodding, through an attack on the United States," he said. Sebastian, who will soon become Duke's deputy in Rabat, tried to reassure his new boss by stressing that protocol only required the ambassador to respond to attacks from the Moroccan king, not the delegates from Libya and other militant Arab countries. Grasping at straws, he even offered Duke a copy of the previous day's International Herald Tribune, but the ambassador had read it.

These matters of high policy did not prevent Duke from playing the perfect host. As he got up from lunch to return to his limousine for the rest of the journey, Duke turned to me and said, "Since neither my wife Robin nor myself will be there tonight, you will have the residence to yourself. But my man, Mohammad, will be expecting you, and he will take care of everything." m LISBON THROUGH BULLETPROOF GLASS

The car is terribly ostentatious; I hate it," said Ambassador Richard Bloomfield. "It's a fully armored vehicle. Nothing short of an anti-tank gun will go through it."

Every workday morning, after a breakfast of fried eggs and toast prepared by his Portuguese cook, Bloomfield gets into the back seat of the vehicle in question, a specially equipped Chrysler New Yorker, for his morning drive to work. As his chauffeur backs the limousine out of the enclosed garage, a contingent of local police routinely block off the narrow street to all passing traffic.

Lisbon is a notoriously peaceful city. Even at the height of the local revolution, when rival military units fought over whether Portugal would go Communist, the conflict was decided by counting men and guns, not by firing shots. Yet the placid character of the Portuguese people is not readily apparent on the circuitous drive through downtown Lisbon. All you can see through the thick bulletproof windows are faces and buildings distorted beyond recognition, looking like refugees from a fun-house hall of mirrors.

It is hard to believe that anyone would want to harm Bloomfield, a compact, balding man dressed in an off-the-rack suit from Arthur Adler. But last November, right before the Iranian crisis, security was tightened in Lisbon after an Arab terrorist group wounded the Israeli ambassador and killed his bodyguard in an assassination attempt.

"We've all become more security conscious," Bloomfield said. "I now have a bodyguard that I didn't have when I first came here, provided by the Portuguese police."

There are times, however, when Bloomfield's patience with the obsession for security wears thin. On weekends he and his wife Pat get into their Chevy and take jaunts into the countryside for lunch, shopping or to enjoy the scenic whitewashed walled villages of rural Portugal. "I'm sure the security people would be horrified if they knew about these trips," Bloomfield said. "But I feel much safer here than my colleagues do in Athens and Nicosia." Show and Tell at the Country Team Meeting It's time for a syllogism. All ambassadors work for the State Department. Ambassadors are in charge of all embassy personnel in their country. Does that mean everybody in the embassy works for the State Department?

As any ambassador will tell you, the answer to that question is, "No, goddam it." First there are the military people protecting American security interests abroad. Then there are those pesky independent agencies like the Peace Corps and the International Communications Agency, not to mention the semi-independent Agency for International Development. Throw in the agricultural, commercial and labor attaches who report to their respective cabinet departments in Washington. Mix in a few bureaucratic strays like the Drug Enforcement Agency and you have the makings of total confusion.

What do government officials do when bureaucratic life verges on chaos? They hold meetings, of course, to, uh, coordinate. That brings us to a darling diplomatic ritual, repeated weekly in American embassies on five continents -- the "country team meeting" where all these diverse American functionaries sit around a long conference table for an hour-long "show-and-tell" session.

The place is the sprawling American embassy in Rabat. The time is 10 a.m. on the morning after the meeting of the Jerusalem Committee in Marrakech. The mood is businesslike for this week's country team meeting.

We move in close to a conference table filled with 15 American officials where we hear Ambassador Duke saying: "I just got back from Marrakech. I can only tell you of the color of the meeting, since all the remarks by the king, the PLO and so forth were in Arabic . . . For those who understand the hierarchy, here is the seating chart . . . I was sitting with the Moroccan press, and I told them to let me know if there was any reason to walk out."

With that auspicious beginning, the meeting quickly deteriorated into one of those surreal events that seemed to owe as much to Woody Allen as to the dictates of American foreign policy in a troubled era. Let's follow the bouncing ball counterclockwise around the conference table and pick up some stray bits of dialogue.

The foreign service officer in charge of administration is now speaking: "The wage survey for local employes is now underway. Some of your Moroccan employes may have approached you on this, so may have your servants . . ."

Then it's time for the Agency for International Development man to talk about "doubling wheat and barley production in the semiarid zones of Morocco."

A quick cut to the consular officer: "We are working on our yearly compilation of statistics for the State Department . . . Also, we've finally convinced the IRS to send a tax expert over here."

All eyes are on the embassy's political officer as he brandishes a French text of the king's remarks at the Jerusalem Committee. His analysis is filled with phrases like "balancing act" and "the unique spread of this country." This is clearly a foreign service man on his way up. He turns to the ambassador and says, "You asked us to keep an eye on internal matters, sir," before giving an update on the trial of seven leftist students.

A colloquy -- yes, a genuine colloquy -- ensues. "In Marrakech," Duke responds, "I had a very interesting talk with the Italian ambassador about the leadership role of students in a non-literate society."

The political officer knows how to handle comments like these from his superiors: "A fascinating, fascinating problem, sir."

The pace slows noticeably, and a dozen American diplomats are probably wondering what their servants are cooking for dinner, as the man from the Drug Enforcement Agency reports on his efforts to unravel a four-year-old hashish trail for a conspiracy trial in Boston.

Then it's on to the defense attache -- the first person at the table to note Morocco's war with the Polisario guerrillas. "Polisario reports out of Algeria seem abnormally inflated," he says, before turning his attention to the more pressing matter of the visit of an American frigate to the port in Casablanca.

Having come full circle, the last discussant is none other than Robin Duke, the ambassadress, an impressive-looking woman, reminiscent of a mature Lauren Bacall, sporting a tan hat with fur trim. When in New York, Robin Duke devotes her considerable energies to feminist causes such as the National Abortion Rights League as well as the tangled Democratic politics of Manhattan's Upper East Side. When in Rabat, Robin Duke sees herself as part of the embassy team and today s reporting on her inspection tour of women training in the Moroccan Air Force.

"I told the colonel who was escorting me," she says in words seemingly lifted from a New Yorker cartoon caption, "that I would love to go down to the Western Sahara and see women in combat." With this pronouncement, the meeting mercifully ends. Dinner at Eight

TWA has its ambassador-class service, which is just glorified coach. One thing I learned is that when you get "real" ambassador-class service, you don't eat Marriott food fresh out of the microwave oven on plastic plates.

Ambassador Richard Bloomfield, like all American ambassadors to Portugal since the 1920s, lives at Number 18 Rua Sacramento a Lapa, a three-story mansion with two levels of internal balconies, built to the specifications of some forgotten 19th-century robber baron. Bloomfield dislikes formal diplomatic receptions, but real informality is difficult to achieve when you have a household staff of two cooks, two butlers, two maids, two gardners and a laundress. (The money for these nine servants comes from the State Department, not out of Bloomfield's $66,750 yearly salary.) My first taste of the good life, ambassador-class, came when I was invited to an "informal" dinner in honor of Dr. Rui Marchete, a dissident member of the prime minister's ruling Social Democratic Party.

One of the two butlers took the coats at the door and escorted the six dinner guests up a flight of marble stairs to a second-floor sitting room where drinks were served under the impressive collection of modern American paintings furnished by the State Department's "Art in Embassies" program. The Bloomfields nervously watched the seating arrangments, making sure that Dr. Marchete, who speaks passable English, talked with a variety of Americans and that Mrs. Marchete always had a conversation partner fluent in Portuguese. Dinner, which included a fish course and a meat course, as well as red and white Portuguese wines, was an opportunity for light conversation on such topics as Afghanistan, the mood of the American electorate and everyone's favorite weekend jaunts outside of Lisbon. Unlike Washington dinner parties, real estate and hot tubs were not discussed.

After dinner the entire party adjourned to a small side room where the other butler served expresso. Here the conversation was more stylized, with Bloomfield, as host, turning to one of the two American journalists present and saying, "Now, tell us about the American economy." The only heat generated by the conversation occurred when one of my comments on Afghanistan strayed a bit too far from the American party line. "Sheer balderdash," said Bloomfield in even diplomatic tones.

As the clock approached 11, the ambassador finally reached the heart of this carefully contrived evening. "Dr. Marchete," he said during a lull in the conversation, "what do you make of this recent talk of a coup by a few members of the Revolutionary Council?" (The Council of the Revolution, one of the curiosities of Portuguese politics, is a group of left-wing military officers who have the constitutional role of overseeing Portugal's transition to democracy.) Thus prompted, Dr. Marchete gave a lengthy discourse on Portuguese politics that did not differ in any discernable way from the orthodox opinions already floating around the embassy.

That bit of business complete, the guests said their goodnights and departed into the damp Lisbon evening. Good Cop/Bad Cop at the Housing Ministry

They worked it all out in the limousine on the way to a noon meeting at the Portuguese housing ministry and the scenario was lifted out of an old police manual. Bloomfield would play "good cop" and give the housing minister of the new government an Agency for International Development check for $727,000. They could have mailed the check, of course, but that wouldn't have given Don Finberg, the AID director in Portugal, the chance to play "bad cop" and complain about construction delays.

At the housing ministry, a once-proud 19th-century building by the waterfront now looking neglected and down-at-the-heels like much of Lisbon, Bloomfield was nonplussed when there was no one to meet the limousine.

"About one-third of the time on visits like this they send someone to meet me," he said. "But this is a Latin country and usually they seem surprised that I'm here." A few minutes later, waiting in a small anteroom with flaking paint and smudged prints by a Protuguese Normal Rockwell, Bloomfield mused aloud, "You know, over the last 20 years, I've been in so many rooms like this with peeling paint in so many different countries."

The new housing minister, Joao Lopes Porto, all smiles and handshakes, ushered the delegation into the massive olive-green office with the Portuguese coat of arms painted on the ceiling. Briefed on the American strategy, I follow the hour-long conversation, conducted entirely in Portuguese, through facial expressions, hand gestures and easily recognizable Latin cognates.

First there's Bloomfield, with long florid sentences, leading up to the presentation of the check, which looks exactly like an IRS tax refund. Then there's the sober Finberg playing the heavy and lacing his oration with words like "problemo," "nessitad" and "determinade." When Finberg finishes, Porto, an impeccably dressed man in his early 40s, flashes a broad grin and says, "Bom," the Portuguese word for "good." Then he frowns and begins a lengthy explanation of his construction problems, dismissing these momentary difficulties with repeated "no significas."

At the door, another round of smiles and handshakes, and a successful meeting completed. Next time, Finberg will come alone with the AID installment check, because this meeting made clear to the housing minister that the AID director speaks with the authority of the American ambassador.

Later that same afternoon, Bloomfield, this time alone, will call on the deputy foreign minister. They will discuss NATO security, Afghanistan, Namibia, and the American reaction to the just-announced election results in Zimbabwe. The deputy foreign minister will violate protocol by asking about the meaning of Senator Kennedy's victory in the Massachusetts primary. aBloomfield, out of "sheer devilment," will respond by inquiring about the coup rumors.

Ever wonder how an ambassador knows what the official line is on a new development like the election of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe? Like any newspaper reporter, he divines American policy by reading between the lines of the transcript of Hodding Carter's latest press briefing at the State Department. If Tip O'Neill Gets a Limousine, Will Dan Rostenknoski Ride the Bus?

An old hand at the State Department described American ambassadors as "the lowest-paid hostelry keepers in the world." While most managers of Ramada Inns do get less than $66,750 a year, it is true that ambassadors must constantly roll out the red carpet for American dignitaries as diverse as David Rockefeller and the under secretary of agriculture. But no group of footloose Americans has a greater ability to wreak havoc on an American embassy than a visiting congressional delegation -- CODELS as they are called in the diplomatic trade.

Over Easter recess, House Speaker Tip O'Neill, aided and abetted by 11 other senior House members, including Chief Deputy Whip Dan Rostenkowski, set off on a global fact-finding tour that took them to Morocco, Yugoslavia and Portugal. For most of March, our embassies in Rabat and Lisbon were in a twit, agonizing over every detail of the preparations and fearing that one misstep could trigger a host of irate calls to the State Department.

Listen to Ambassador Bloomfield describe the upcoming visit to a few of his junior foreign service officers: "O'Neill and his party will be going to Yugoslavia first, so I guess they can get there just about the time that Tito dies. They will be arriving here on a Thursday and staying through the weekend. As near as I can tell, they are mostly interested in large expanses of green with tiny holes in them." Having made his joke about golf courses, Bloomfield grew serious for a moment. "About all we can do is to work their butts off."

In Rabat, Ambassador Duke convened a special meeting at the embassy to discuss preparations for the visit and the delegation's audience with the king. One of the weighty issues to be decided was local transportation as the CODEL jetted from Rabat to Marrakech to Casablanca. "In terms of getting people around, I hope we can use a bus," Duke said. "Even for the Speaker?" asked the administrative officer. "Except for the Speaker," said the ambassador.

The next question was posed by Peter Sebastian, the consul general in Casablanca. "What are we going to do about -- er -- cultural activities in Casablanca?" The euphemism momentarily puzzled the ambassador. "That's a code word for entertainment, isn't it?" he asked. It was indeed a problem. The dilemma was stated by the political officer: "There's nothing in Casablanca that they couldn't find in Youngstown or Cleveland."

But the ambassador was firm. "I don't want to forbid them to go to Casablanca because it's boring. They've got to find it out for themselves." It was a reasonable position. After all, isn't the purpose of a congressional fact-finding tour to discover that the night life in Casablanca is as limited as that of Youngstown? Back in the USA and Staying at the Howard Johnson's

Waiting for me in the lounge of the Sheraton Carlton, Ambassador Richard Bloomfield looked like any other rumpled, mid-level bureaucrat. Away from the mansion and the limousine, away from the pomp and circumstance of ambassadorial life, Bloomfield was just another State Department funcionary checking in with the home office.

Bloomfield was in Washington for consultations, a journey he normally takes twice a year. Once returning ambassadors reported to the president. But on this trip, Bloomfield decided that his concerns were not worth bothering Cyrus Vance, although he did talk with under secretary Warren Christopher. During his 10 days in Washington, Bloomfield stayed at the Howard Johnson's motor inn opposite the Watergate. "That's about all that's convenient to the State Department that I can afford on my per diem," he explained.

As American ambassador, Bloomfield is one of the most important men in Portugal. But in Washington, my last glimpse of him was watching him walk slowly down K Street heading for the Metro stop at Connecticut Avenue.