Eight days before the inauguration, Ronald Reagan's cabinet hosted a black-tie dinner at the F Street Club to honor the transition teams. Donald Regan, the new treasury secretary, was sick, but he sent a toast to be read in his name.

According to a participant, Regan's dinner toast read like this: "No one has made greater use of the transition teams than I have. Only by totally working my whole transition team 15 hours a day could I keep Dave Stockman under control."

The secretary of the treasury had reason to be worried about David A. Stockman, the new director of the Office of Management and Budget. At age 34, after two terms as a Michigan congressman, Stockman is the youngest person to hold Cabinet rank in more than 150 years. He comes to power with a controversial agenda to transform American economic policy and a young man's faith in the potency of his own ideas.

For starters, Stockman wants to mount a frontal assault on the federal budget. He isn't cowed by the congressional appropriations process. Nor is he frightened by the special interests nor liberal bleeding-hearts who defend their favorite sections of the budget with the ferocity of junkyard dogs.

The OMB post may be his battle station, but budget-cutting is only part of his ambitious strategy.

Stockman, who believes in free market economics, wants to declare holy war on the kind of federal regulations that businessmen curse over their martinis. Unlike the more cautions Regan, he is a zealous advocate in the Reagan cabinet of across-the-board, permanent Kemp-Roth tax cuts.

If tax-cut strategy works, Stockman believes that the energies of America will be unleashed in an orgy of productive frenzy. And, if it fails, Stockman will have to defend the largest budget deficits in American history. Either way, Stockman promises to be at the center of the firestorm that will swirl around Reagan economic policy.

In the early scrimmages among the Reagan team, Stockman has already broken away for long yardage. Alan Greenspan, a key outside adviser to Reagan, said, "Among those going into governmnet, Stockman has the most conceptual input right now. Dave deserves the status that he has achieved. He'd done an extrordinary job. He's the brightest guy around."

There are many bright, intensely driven, 34-year-old whiz kids in Washington. But Dave Stockman is different. At a time when many of his contemporaries are bucking for regional sales manager or worrying if they are partnership material, Stockman is trying to impose discipline on an unwieldy $739 billion budget.

His meteoric rise is a tale of raging ambition. Stockman himself concedes that at times, it makes him "appear to be the most conniving character in history."

The Stockman saga illustrates that, even in an age of falling expectations, America is still a meritocracy, ready to reward bright Midwestern farmboys who work hard, cultivate their betters and keep their eye squarely on the main chance.

It was just 14 years ago that Ronald Reagan, pledging to get tough with campus demonstrators, was sworn in as governor of California. That same year, 1967, Stockman was an antiwar activist on the sprawling East Lansing campus of Michigan State University. In the spring, he came to Washington for an antiwar rally. That summer, between his junior and senior years in college, Stockman worked as the only full-time organizer in the Lansing area for Vietnam Summer, arguing that Vietnam was an internal civil war.

Today, Stockman remembers Vietnam Summer as "pretty much of a bust." But he also fondly recalls 1967 as the first summer that he didn't have to return to his family's 150-acre fruit farm outside of St. Joseph, Mich., "to pick berries and haul tomatoes."

Stockman was reluctant to discuss whether he agrees with Ronald Reagan that Vietnam was "a noble cause." But the OMB director gave a revealing answer when asked what stayed with him from that period as an antiwar crusader: "I suppose the same curiosity. It was more intellectual than anything else. The only thing that has changed is my view of the world. I'm still trying to figure out the world, even now."

The first thing you notice about Dave Stockman are the aviator glasses and the thatch of graying hair swept back in a $25 haircut from a unisex barber. His face is generally impassive, but occasionally in conversation a small smirk will play across his features. Whether it's at his Senate confirmation hearing or in his office early on a Saturday morning, Stockman wears the same conservative uniform -- a dark suit from Britches, a white shirt and a sincere red tie.

Much of the surface polish is the work of Jennifer Blei, his 26-year-old girlfriend. She is one of the top computer salespeople for IBM. Two years ago, at the age of 32, Stockman did not own a pair of jeans. "I got him to buy a pair," Blei said, "but they shrank in the first washing so they ended above his ankles. But he kept wearing them. They weren't really a pair of jeans, they were more like a long pair of shorts."

Outside of his work, Stockman's life is about as riveting as the opening pages of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. He and Jennifer Blei occasionally play chess. They go out to dinner at homes of friends like Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Richard Straus, editor of a newsletter on Middle East affairs. But as Blei put it, "If this is going to be a personal piece about Dave Stockman, it will be a really short article."

Small towns in the Midwest breed high achievers. More top-ranking corporate executives are born there than anywhere else. The harsh farm life and the lack of other diversions instill the work ethic. The flat, unchanging landscape inspires among the brightest a desperate urge to escape.

This environment molded Dave Stockman. He grew up on a southwestern Michigan farm that has been in his mother's family since the 1890s. He even went to a one-room school.

The living room of the family farmhouse looks like it was lifted from an old Saturday Evening Post cover, complete with a couch covered in chintz, simulated wood-grain paneling, and a recliner for Stockman's father, Al.

His mother, Carol, said that Dave, the oldest of five, "is the least emotional of the children." That comment triggered a reprise of all the old family arguments that Al Stockman, too, isn't emotional. The OMB director's father finally sat up in his recliner and said, "It's just that I don't let it show." Carol Stockman had the last word: "But you can't keep it all inside you; you'll get an ulcer."

While Dave was at Michigan State, where he originally went to study agriculture, the Stockman family was the scene of many heated debates over Vietnam. Al Stockman, a strong supporter of the war, remembers that "I felt pretty lonely at times."

Fourteen years later, with his son in the Reagan cabinet, Al Stockman finally feels vindicated. "The things Dave is preaching now," Stockman said, "were the things that I was saying back in the days when I was so out of it. College professors always know more about things than the old man at home."

There are college professors and, then, there are Harvard professors. The Stockman saga demonstrates the opportunities that can fall into your bookbag in Harvard Yard.

At Michigan State, one of Stockman's principal interests was religious philosophy. His road to the antiwar movement began at the activist Edgewood United Church of Christ in Lansing, where he also taught Sunday School.

In 1968, Stockman accepted a fellowship to Harvard Divinity School -- though he had no intention of entering the clergy. Stockman attributes this decision to his "fascination" with the writings of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. "I was trying to find a way intellectually out of the radical thicket I was in," Stockman said. "niebuhr was sort of a bridge back to a more conventional view of the world."

Divinity school conveniently brought with it a 4-D draft deferment. Stockman denies that he was a draft dodger. But some who knew him well during this period have their suspicions.

Truman Morrison, Stockman's minister in college, wrote one of his recommendations to Harvard. Morrison said he'd "be willing to surmise" that Stockman knew divinity school would "keep him out of the distasteful spectacle that was Vietnam."

Morrison was one of many interviewed for this article who commented on Stockman's self-absorption: "David was always thinking about David a great deal of the time. He is very narcissistic. David has always been very intent on his own personal advancement."

Nothing that Stockman did before or since was more calculated than his campaign to win Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) as his mentor. Moynihan was then commuting from Harvard to his job in the Nixon White House.

At Harvard, Stockman recognized the upward mobility of the babysitter. He plotted for months to get a job as the live-in au pair student for the Moynihan family. Before his job interview, the methodical Stockman read all of Moynihan's published writings.

Stockman tended bar, carried groceries, emptied the garbage and looked after the three Moynihan children. The year left an imprint on many of his attitudes toward the federal budget.

Moynihan -- along with Harvard professors James Q. Wilson and Nathan Glazer, who also influenced Stockman -- were in the forefront of a group of Great Society liberals rethinking the effects of the social programs they had shaped during the Johnson years. Their novel notion was to look hard at the results of social programs instead of merely praising their goals.

Moynihan recalls that it would have been easy for Stockman to become another Harvard radical of the era. "There was something in him that said that this is not as interesting, or if you will, as promising a way to spend your life," Moynihan said. "He chose to be a nonconformist."

Others at Harvard pursued nonconformity by trashing campus buildings; Stockman became a liberal Republican.

It was a shrewd move. In those days, prominent Democrats were awash in Ivy League resumes. Meanwhile, the Republican Party was a geriatric enterprise filled with blue-haired old ladies and corpulent Rotarians.

Another helpful mentor, Washington Post associate editor David S. Broder, brought Stockman together with Rep. John Anderson (R-Ill.), the soul of moderate Republicanism.

Broder was teaching a course at Harvard and Stockman was one of his brightest students. Anderson, newly elected chairman of the House Republican Conference, needed another staffer. Border mentioned Stockman; Moynihan took Anderson aside after a White House meeting to sing the praises of his young protege.

Stockman borrowed $50 from his mother to fly to Washington for the interview. Anderson hired him on the spot, and the dream of a divinity degree died forever.

Eighteen months later, 25-year-old Dave Stockman became director of the House Republican Conference, with a private office and a personal staff. In three years, Stockman transformed the conference from an intellectual backwater into one of the best research factories on Capitol Hill.

Stockman calls these years "my formative period." During the period, he developed his "rabid" affinity for free-market economics. It was a conversion that was, in part, dictated by political necessity.

Anderson's liberal social views were alienating orthodox Republicans. Stockman feared for Anderson's leadership position -- and his own job. So he began reading reams of material from the American Enterprise Institute and other conservative think tanks. He was searching for free-market issues on which Anderson could appear to be a mainstream Republican.

Anderson and Stockman were extremely close. At various points, the congressman found staff jobs for two Stockman brothers. When Anderson made speeches in southwestern Michigan, he stayed with Stockman's parents. It was the kind of father-son relationship you see occasionally on Capitol Hill. But it was a relationship eventually doomed by the son's rebellion against the liberal views of his surrogate father.

Anderson himself refused to be interviewed about Stockman. But his wife, Keke, remembered Stockman as "a workaholic. I've never seen a young man so obsessed with work."

Stockman blames his rift with Anderson on his decision not to support the congressman's recent presidential ambitions. "That disappointed him a lot," Stockman said. "Understandably so."

Keke Anderson believes the falling-out happened earlier. "John began to sense," she said, choosing her words carefully, "that there was just too much drive and not enough human aspects there."

There comes a time in every successful young man's life when he wants to do something on his own. Most resist the temptation because of mortgage payments or children. A few start their own businesses or law firms. mDave Stockman, 29, ran for Congress in 1976.

It was a bold gamble. Despite an uninspiring record, Republican incumbent congressman Edward Hutchison was fully in tune with the conservatism of Stockman's home district in southwestern Michigan and showed no intention of retiring. Moreover, virtually no one in the district knew Stockman, who hadn't lived at home since 1964.

Stockman also had to bridge a difficult political and social chasm. His grandfather had been Republican county treasurer for 30 years and his family was prominent among the farmers in the area. However, Stockman came from a different social class than the local gentry, with their big houses on Lake Michigan.

But Stockman had been prepping for a race against the hapless Hutchison for a long time. He had long earnest talks with a local judge, Chester Byrns, who helped introduce him to the first families of the area. Byrns describes Stockman in those days as "not very sophisticated" with "much of the farmboy still in him."

In 1974, Stockman got his mother, who was a spear-carrier in local Republican politics, elected county chairman. She worked with such intensity on her son's campaign that a congressional aide to Stockman later compared her to "Rose Kennedy or maybe Joe Kennedy."

Meanwhile Stockman stole his young campaign manager from the Republican Conference. David Gerson, now 27, has been Stockman's alter ego as he has moved from administrative assistant to an aide at OMB. Together, back in 1975, they put together the first modern campaign in the history of the sleepy congressional district -- a $110,000 primary challenge to Hutchison.

During this time, Stockman somehow found time to write his first article, "The Social Porkbarrel," which appeared in early 1975 in The Public Interest, a small neo-conservative magazine.

The article fused Moynihan's skepticism about social programs with Stockman's knowledge of the hidden byways of Capitol Hill. Social programs, the future OMB director argued passionately, had acquired a constituency that used the same porkbarrel politics as the military-industrial complex.

"That article is how I got to Congress," Stockman said with a laugh. Irving Kristol, the editor of The Public Interest, found occasion to praise it effusively in a long commentary in the Wall Street Journal.

Kristol's column caught the eye of the most influential newspaper publisher in the district. The publisher wrote an editorial suggesting that the Hutchinson era had passed -- and that the Stockman era was dawning. "That editorial launched our campaign and things just started to build after that," Stockman said.

Judge Byrns recalls a meeting in his home in the fall of 1975 to introduce Stockman to the local corporate elite centered around Whirlpool, the dominant corporation in the area.

"Dave knew that the dozen or so people I had invited could be financially helpful to him," Byrns said. "But they were skeptical. Dave was wearing his hair long in those days, sort of a Prince Valiant haircut, and that didn't help. He was very hesitant because he knew who these people were. Lord, how he had studied them. He had a nervous habit of stroking his mouth as he talked. And he gave very long answers to questions."

But Stockman's intellect and his knowledge of Washington overcame his social awkwardness. "Stockman fascinated those people because he was a walking computer," Byrns said. "He was using facts and figures that these business leaders could look up. And they did, and they were impressed."

On Groundhog Day 1976, Stockman sprang from his hole and formally announced his congressional candidacy. Two days later, Hutchison announced his retirement from Congress.

Humility was not Dave Stockman's strong suit when he arrived in Congress in early 1977.

At the orientation session for new GOP freshmen, everyone introduced himself, usually with a bit of personal biography. When it was Stockman's turn, he got up and said, "My name is Dave Stockman. I have a great deal of experience on Capitol Hill. My staff and I will be glad to help any of you freshmen get adjusted."

"As you can imagine," said one of his colleagues, "Dave's remarks went over like a lead balloon."

But Stockman had too much on his mind to worry about congressional protocol. He wangled a seat on the commerce committee and was in the forefront of the Republican opposition to Carter's energy programs. He became a self-taught expert on health care and helped lead the fight against Carter's hospital cost containment program.

Beginning in 1977, Stockman put together alternative conservative budget proposals. In March 1980, speaking for a group of 60 House members, he proposed $26 billion in cuts. At a House Budget Committee hearing, Stockman said that he personally wanted to cut $34 billion more.

Blessed with a safe district, Stockman could pursue his ideological interests free from much cant and hypocrisy. He voted against farm subsidies in an agricultural district. He was the only member of the Michigan delegation to oppose the Chrysler bailout.

Meanwhile, Stockman kept writing, churning out more than 20 articles on policy issues, particularly energy, regulation and economics. A third of these pieces, which helped solidify Stockman's reputation as a thinking man's conservative, appeared in the pages of The Washington Post.

At his Senate confirmation hearing, after listening to liberal senators read back some of his more controversial sentences, Stockman said ruefully, "If I do manage to get confirmed for this job, I think I'm going to stop writing."

Perhaps Stockman's shrewdest move in Congress was cementing an alliance with Jack Kemp, the former football quarterback turned tax-cut advocate.

Kemp describes their relationship as Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside." But a more accurate assessment would be that Stockman provided the brains and Kemp provided, if not the brawn, at least, the public stage presence.

Despite Stockman's self-confidence, he acknowledged that there was a gaping hole in his economic thinking when he arrived in Congress. He had strong views on the budget and oppressive federal regulations, but he lacked an overall economic theory -- a macroeconomic philosophy in the jargon of the trade.

"I believed in free-market economics," Stockman said, "but that doesn't tell you anything about macroeconomic policy. I needed a macro philosophy and I didn't have one. Except for a knee-jerk Hooverite view that most Republicans had at the time. But I was a little too sophisticated for that. I knew the budget couldn't be balanced every year."

Kemp's gospel, called supply-side economics, contends that the government went wrong by stimulating consumer demand. What it should have been doing, Kemp argued, was encouraging America to increase production. One policy remedy was a massive tax cut, the Kemp-Roth bill, that would set off a new American industrial revolution.

With Kemp directing his reading, Stockman became a true believer. Up to now, Stockman's strength was his skepticism about well-intentioned social welfare programs and the government's tinkering with the free market. But Stockman seized on supply-side economics with the same zeal that young intellectuals once brought to the writings of Herbert Marcuse.

A week after the 1980 election, before Reagan had picked his OMB director, Stockman and Kemp collaborated on a memo that outlined how the new administration could avoid an "economic Dunkirk." The origins of this memo explain how the dynamic duo of Kemp and Stockman worked.

Kemp, not Stockman, had been invited to the first meeting of Reagan's economic advisers in mid-November in Los Angeles. The former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills felt a bit inadequate in this august company: "There would be all these big-name economists -- George Schultz, Alan Greenspan, Arthur Burns -- and me, Jack Kemp, sitting around a table. I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility."

So Kemp turned to Stockman, his junior partner. "Dave," he said, "we've got to decide on the type of approach I'm going to take at that meeting." Stockman wrote most of the memo and Kemp carried the ball in Los Angeles.

There are signs that Kemp is bristling over Stockman's new prominence. David Gerson recalls a recent half-joking phone call from Kemp. "I'm getting tired of Dave Stockman pushing me off the front pages," Kemp said. "The next thing, I'll be seeing him on the cover of a sports magazine with his arm cocked back ready to throw a pass."

Even as a junior congressman, Dave Stockman had a lean and hungry look. He was toying with running for the Senate in 1982 or 1984. Fred Matthews, his chief congressional fund-raiser, wanted to enter him in the Iowa presidential caucuses in 1984. In the fall of 1979, Stockman tried to get Matthews, an optometrist from Dowagiac, Mich., to raise some money for an exploratory presidential campaign for Kemp.

"What's in it for you?" Matthews said he asked Stockman.

"That way I could be director of OMB," Stockman said.

Kemp never ran for president, but Stockman got to be OMB director by impersonating two presidential candidates. Before Reagan's debate with Anderson, the former California governor practiced by debating the 33-year-old congressman.

Stockman had only met Reagan at large formal meetings, but he was an obvious choice to play Anderson, his former mentor. He was so good he was asked to come back for a second performance in late October as the Stand-in for Carter.

The reviews were glowing. Reagan, a former actor, knew talent when he saw it. Alan Greenspan was so impressed by Stockman's impersonation of Carter that he said, "If we had the capacity to give something like an Academy Award, Stockman would have gotten it." Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), one of Reagan's closest advisors, said the mock debates were "near-indispensable" for Stockman's unanimous selection for the OMB job.

It is said that some of the most disappointed people in life are those who achieve their dreams too early.

The director of OMB, with its far-reaching responsibilities that cut across the entire government, has always been Stockman's dream job.

"Dave has always been in awe of that position," said Jennifer Blei. "It was the place where he could implement all of his ideas. But it's always been almost like a dream to him. I always felt he'd be an OMB director. But not in 1980."

Two flames have lighted Dave Stockman's charmed life as he has moved from antiwar crusader to OMB director. One is burning ambition and the other is his glowing faith that his ideas can shape political events.

But Stockman's idealism has always been curiously devoid of compassion. He has described the federal budget as "a coast-to-coast soupline." But he lacks the empathy also to see the budget as people to be served, instead of inflated numbers on a page.

Perhaps this lack of compassion is related to the way Stockman has used his obsession with work to keep people at arm's length.

Nothing in Stockman's career has prepared him to compromise his vocal confidence in his own opinions. An intellectual lone wolf could stand out among the Republican minority in the House. But now Dave Stockman is playing on someone else's team.

As OMB director, Stockman will win some battles in the Reagan White House, but he will lose some as well. In victory or defeat, Stockman will have to defend the administration's policies to Congress, the press and the public.

Will he bear defeat gracefully, and defer to others more powerful -- but not necessarily more intelligent -- than he? It is a problem that worries the Reagan team. According to corridor gossip during transition, Edwin Meese III, Reagan's closest adviser, personally selected the man who will be Stockman's deputy to OMB, Edwin L. Harper.

His mission is the same as Donald Regan's. To keep Dave Stockman under control.