There are certain people in this world who are the objects of our envy, admiration or involuntary delight. We can't help liking them, at least while they are in the same room. They are not necessarily more intelligent than the next person. Nor are they always more beautiful or endowed with larger stock portfolios, although sometimes --since God is more mysterious than fair-- they have these extra assets as well. But they possess a certain carbonation of spirit that sends bubbles into whatever atmosphere they uncork their personalities. What these people have is charm.

Charm, by its nature, is evanescent. But its possessors can be distinguished by their capacity to make other people think, feel or do something out of the ordinary, oftentimes for them.

Charmers can be amoral or saintly. We know the difference only after they have left our presence. Either we glow with satisfaction or we have the distinct feeling that we've just been used, like crepe paper, to stuff somebody else's float.

Not everybody is charmed by everybody else. Miss America contestants and Clare Booth Luce attract different audiences, although the Great Charmers throw the widest nets, catching almost everybody on one level or another, without inflicting harm. And at its most benevolent and immortal, charm leaves no marks.

In Washington, however, charm seems to have struck out on foot for New Orleans. "This is a town of forced charm," said writer and literary agent Ann Buchwald. "The fakes can only be detected by children or if you go to their house on the wrong day."

"Charm?" said George Stevens, director of the American Film Institute. "I'll tell you who has charm in Washington: Cary Grant when he's in town."

Historically, charm has always been the least negotiable of instruments in Washington. In a fact-thirsty city (charmers like to rise above the facts), hard news tends to weigh the citizens down. For every jaunty FDR there are 10 Millard Fillmores, once described as "suffocatingly moral." The brilliant exceptions, like Jefferson, Lincoln and Kennedy, prove that charm succeeds only when it is an artful braiding of truth and playfulness, and in a city that revolves around large issues, Washingtonians have a tendency to grow boring from within.

"People here use a lot of odd terms," said Frank Mankiewicz, president of National Public Radio. "Like 'encrypted telemetry,' which is a Pentagon term--it has something to do with SALT--and 'manganese nodules.' I don't know what the hell that means. Even Gary Hart (Democratic senator from Colorado) is beginning to talk like that, which would be a great loss . . . There ain't much whimsy here."

Skimming the top of his mind for Great Washington Charmers, Mankiewicz came up with Vice President George Bush as being innately charming. "He's got the hair, the kind that you can toss back when you come out of a swimming pool and it lies right. And he's learned about the tie, which is always off-center with both ends showing." Mankiewicz fumbled with his own tie to demonstrate. "I can't do it," he admitted. "I'm Jewish."

At the top of Mankiewicz' list of charmers is Clark Clifford. "Of course," said Mankiewicz, "Clifford is the one person you must not ask the time of. By the time he answers, it's wrong."

Clark Clifford, lawyer and public servant upon presidential command, is the ultimate grandfather clock. If anatomy is destiny, he should have been president himself. Tall, silver-haired and patrician-looking, Clifford, who was born in Fort Scott, Kan., is so presidential in mien that one is forced to conclude the only reason he never was president is that he didn't want to be. Reclining behind his polished desk at the law firm of Clifford & Warnke on Connecticut Avenue, he radiates overview. But this is getting ahead.

One does not dart into Clark Clifford's office. One proceeds in increasingly more comforting stages, from the elevator into an Oriental-rugged foyer, which could be somebody's Georgetown house.

Stage two is the receptionist's area, where there are more Oriental rugs, bowls full of fresh flowers and oil portraits of significant-looking 18th-century barristers giving you the eye. Salvation is near at hand. Stage three is an invitation to step through a softly lighted section of the maze to Clifford's personal waiting room, although "waiting room" seems too dental a phrase to use on such a down-filled, slipcovered antechamber. You could wait forever, flipping through American Heritage volumes, just knowing that Clifford was near at hand.

Then, "Mr. Clifford is free," murmurs his secretary, who leads you into his office, where he is standing behind his desk, in front of a draped-window view of the White House, one finger slowly riffling through a small, thick stack of white notes. He looks up slowly, with a smile that is lambent with reassurance. How many anxious corporate clients have seen, once again, the light at the end of the tunnel in the soothing presence of such a man?

He is dressed in a dark blue pin-striped suit. His white shirt has starched French cuffs anchored by gold cuff links that shoot slowly back and forth from his sleeves as he wafts his hands over his desk.

"As you can see," he explained upon request, "I have divided my work into four piles." (Each small stack is weighed down by a medallion with the head of Truman, Kennedy or Johnson or an honorary award engraved on top.) "This last pile are the items that still remain to be done." Easing himself down into his chair, he made a careful tent of his long fingers and smiled. "Some things take a long time, and so we must wait."

Clifford, who eschews computer retrieval systems, takes calls from clients. While they are pouring their woes into his ear, he extracts the latest jotting he made on the case from the appropriate pile, and reads it silently. "After I have refreshed my memory," he said, "I can then interrupt and say, 'Well, here's about the way we thought about it . . . at that time." Glancing sideways to see if his small deception has amused his listener, Clifford grins. A slow, stately grin. It gives one time to think. About charm.

"In some cities," Clifford said, "charm is probably an important element. But in Washington you may disregard charm because there is another word that is all-important." Sliding laced fingers across his desk, he leans forward and whispers: "That word is POWER. If you have power, you don't need charm. If, by rare chance, you happen to have both, there is no limit to how high you can go."

Clifford is his own best case. Every working day, he steps into an elevator that takes him to the top floor of 815 Connecticut Ave., silently whirring past 11 other floors of lawyers in competing firms.

Clifford, adviser to presidents and a former secretary of defense, is the one lawyer whose existence, like Jane Fonda for the over-40 female, reminds every other Washington attorney of what is possible.

"When a hostess is putting together a dinner party," he added, "charm plays absolutely no role. What matters is what your position is, how much influence you have, who you know."

Does this mean that Clifford has attended a great many dull dinner parties in the 40 years he has been in Washington? Clifford retreated into a polite silence. Silence is part of his charm.

Clifford's personal favorite in the presidential charm sweepstakes is John Kennedy. When Kennedy asked him to support his 1960 candidacy, Clifford declined, saying, "I would like to, but I have known Sen. (Stuart) Symington for over 30 years, and I have already pledged myself to his efforts."

Kennedy was magnanimous. "He said, 'Clark, I understand fully. I wouldn't have much respect for a friend of 30 years if he didn't support me.' I felt a warm sense of appreciation flowing over me." One of nature's quicker studies himself, Clifford has a way of bathing the person he is focusing upon with dignity. An empty room in his intellect seems ready to be furnished with whatever you might say.

"Now, Johnson, he had charm, the charm of a great big locomotive. My God, it was a sight to behold! You instinctively thought: How can I get out of its way? But Carter? Personal charm was not one of his assets. He was oppressively moral. Then too, unfortunately, President Carter was served very poorly by his voice. It lacked conviction, resonance and depth."

One must hear Clifford in person to understand that whether he is describing his car to a parking lot attendant or testifying before a Senate subcommittee, his voice inspires a person to settle his differences on the courthouse steps. It whispers, rolls, expands and contracts, like the Royal Instrument filling a cathedral.

"I've watched public figures for many years," said Clifford, "and it's amazing how important the voice is. President Reagan, for instance, has a 'trust me' sound to his voice."

A minor furrow forms across his brow when Clifford mentioned Reagan. "Television is an interesting test at this time. Here you have a president of great personal charm whose policies are considered by many to be inimical to the welfare of this country, and can retain his popularity even though these policies are becoming increasingly unpopular."

When Clifford speaks, he makes extensive use of his hands, which seem perpetually anxious for each other's company. They move apart, slowly lace themselves together again, separate to form a container for new ideas that he cradles and turns while examining them, and when duty calls, one index finger will write messages across the other.

"Whether charm, humor and appropriate one-liners will serve as a mask covering up policies which many feel are seriously injuring our country will be an interesting test," said Clifford. "Yes, it is an interesting test."

Swiveling slowly around in his chair to gaze out his window at the White House, Clifford said, "I think it's entirely possible that when our people become sufficiently and sorely beset, the issues will gradually take precedence over Reagan's charm. Charm is more appealing when you are well fed, well clothed, well housed and the future looks bright."

If Clifford ever knew a dark moment, it is not written upon his face. Each one of his 76 years bathes him in a phosphorescent glow to the roots of his hair, which is curly but obedient, like a series of trained ocean waves that break briefly behind his ears.

A bell, like a muffled typewriter return signal, rings on Clifford's desk. As he rises to say goodbye, the subject turns to chess. "Long ago I played chess. My father liked the game and encouraged me to play with him when I was a boy. But finally my father put a stop to it. He used to stay up nights working on his next move and it exhausted him."

Clifford never makes obvious connections. But the final revelation of his charm comes without words. The curtainremi is pulled slowly. A pair of invisible cords in his cheek muscles draw upward. Nothing hasty, but here it comes: teeth, in brilliant, straight rows, footlights illuminating the totality. Clark Clifford's smile is both impish and Olympian, and it fills up the room.

Several blocks away from the shrinelike precincts of Clark Clifford's office is Mel Krupin's restaurant. Krupin's is the grownup equivalent of the back alley garage where adolescent boys lounge around on cast-off sofas, planning their next assult on the world.

"A lot of people here," said syndicated political columnist Mark Shields, "almost put together the biggest deal of their life today."

When Mark Shields comes into Krupin's he is enfolded like a favorite son. Mel gives him a bear hug, waiters fight each other off to pull out his chair. They know what he wants (crab cakes and Tab) and Shields is hardly seated before the elbow grabs begin. At the center table, 15 feet from the end of the staircase, which delivers each new diner to the assembled clientele, Shields dominates Krupin's as a telephone operator dominates her board.

Shields, who looks like an ethnic preppy, has a face that seems a cross between Tip O'Neill and Joe Kraft. He wears his opinions like his ties: loose, with room for adjustment if a crook is nice to his grandmother, which changes things for the better in Shields' view. Considered one of the most trenchant observers of true and false charmers in Washington, Shields said, "This is a town full of ex-student body presidents. But almost everybody has graduated from the George Allen School of Charm."

An exception--and Shields thinks highly of him --is Robert Strauss. It was once written that Bob Strauss is so charming that if he shoots a stray arrow into the wall he simply draws a bull's-eye around it.

"Bob Strauss understands the insecurity of Washington and has a great sense of judgment, too. What he is," said Shields, "is a nicer Don Rickles. He'll walk up to you and say, 'You goddamn shanty Irishman, all you do is drink all day.' Usually there's more than a germ of truth in his insults. It's more like a virus. But it's flattering to be insulted by Strauss. It means that he has taken you into account."

A former senator rolls majestically by. "He looks good," conceded Shields. "But there's no truth in packaging there."

Shields packages truth with humor, the first cousin of charm, which can exist without humor but not half so well. Humor is a helium that makes people rise high enough above the painful point to understand it without being stabbed to death.

But Shields thinks humor can be hazardous for politicians, who depend upon charming a broad spectrum of voters, not all of whom are flattered by the same joke.

What quickly surfaces about Shields is that he thinks loyalty is charming. "Now over there," he points, "is a guy I can't say enough about--John White. He used to be chairman of the Democratic Party in Texas when I was campaigning for McGovern. We must have tried to take Texas on 11 different occasions. John was the only person who ever showed up at the airport to meet us, rain or shine, and he'd always try to say something hopeful, like, 'I think we've got some real movement now.' Hell, we were dying in Texas and there's no quicker way to know you are in a losing campaign than when everybody says they've got to go to their son's graduation from driving school, or they have an urgent appointment at their taxidermist's. I'd go bail for John White at 3 o'clock in the morning, no questions asked."

Lunch over, Shields takes to the staircase, pulling Krupin's restaurant behind him, like a tablecloth caught in his waistband. Heads look up. Waiters wave. As it is with all charmers, you know when he's not there anymore.

It is interesting to note that conversations about charm, an asset often associated with women, did not yield an immediate list of women charmers to balance the list of men. When men were asked, they immediately offered other men as candidates. When women were queried, they, too, had their list of favorite men.

Does this mean that there are no powerfully charming women in Washington? No. But few, if any of them, wear both charm and power on the same bracelet, and none of those specifically mentioned were willing to talk about charm in any detail. They demurred, they protested, they immediately mentioned several other women who, in their opinion, were far more charming than they could ever hope to be. Great Washington Women Charmers--perhaps because they instinctively recoil from a dissection of their secrets--are charmingly modest about their powers, and the majority of beloved women in this city tend to be candlelit reflections of the men they are affiliated with, or the sunsets behind the cactus plants who put the men in a more flattering light.

Evangeline Bruce, widow of diplomat David K. E. Bruce, slim, throaty and elegant, makes every person feel as if she had been waiting all along for you to walk up and straighten out her life. Joan Braden, public relations executive, is a natural catalyst, someone who catches you with a combination of candor, enthusiasm and bird-like vulnerability. Against your will, you find yourself monitoring her dinner plate, as if she might not eat enough if you were not there to make certain.

Lorraine Cooper, wife of former senator John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky.), presidential assistant Elizabeth Hanford Dole and Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) figure prominently in most lists as being extremely charming, as do Susan Stamberg (of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered") and Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.), who is so genuinely charming that her charm is suspect to people unfamiliar with saintliness.

"I would say that a woman like Lady Bird Johnson was and is extremely charming," said Washington lawyer Steve Martindale. "Or Oatsie Charles (a Georgetown consultant at Sotheby's). Oatsie doesn't want anything from anybody. She just wants to have a good time and wants you to have a good time, too, all the while having Nancy Reagan for lunch. But here she is, this beautiful, elegant woman sitting in that perfectly beautiful house on R Street, and when you walk in the door she acts as if you've just saved her life. There are probably 40,000 men in Washington who have 'just saved her life,' but she makes you feel as if she couldn't live without you.

"Women like Oatsie Charles and Lady Bird Johnson make you feel as if you're the most important person in the world and at the same time they manage to impart their opinions. That's called 'gentle persuasion.' It's what Reagan is such a master at, and what Clark Clifford does, too." (Martindale, no slouch at such matters himself, once offered business cards that read "Anything Clark Clifford can do, I can do cheaper.")

But all things considered, powerfully charming Washington women decorate the sidelines; if they try to get into the game, they don't seem as charming anymore.

"This is a sexist town," said Mankiewicz. "You can tell because people in Washington talk about equality more here, which means there's less of it. Then, too, when a woman is called 'charming,' society puts a little spin on the word. It means she is more guileful than attractive. Like a 'charming pitcher,' it means she doesn't have a fast ball."

When I think of charming," said Sargent Shriver, "I think of it as a charm-school kind of definition. And it's true that you do have to dress, act and look a certain way so you don't jar people. Reagan is charming. Anybody would say that he could rap on the front door and come on in to drink beer for a couple of hours and he wouldn't make them feel at all uncomfortable, which is one kind of charm."

Shriver, who was director of the Peace Corps and ambassador to France, thinks affability is in the lower order of charm. "In my experience," he said, "I've never met a significant political figure who laughed all the time. You have to be damn vapid to have that Ezio Pinza- 'South Pacific' quality all the time. Nehru, Adenauer, De Gaulle, Kosygin--none of them were big smilers. Now, Roosevelt, he smiled a lot. Maybe that's what he did to American politics. Before him you didn't find presidents grinning all the time. Roosevelt fixed that as a requirement."

Shriver, despite his small apologia for solemnity, seems metabolically and philosophically incapable of solemnity for very long himself. He is as purely charming as anybody in town.

Self-effacing, vulnerable to inspiration and genuinely attracted to ideas that he hasn't thought of himself, he has a way of incorporating other people into his life as a valuable answer to a question he had not been able to answer on his own. People are worked into his process effortlessly, so that one thinks Shriver has become part of theirs.

But in the end, charm can perhaps best be defined as the capacity to jolt the recipients into a new dimension that they could not have traveled to on their own. In a family full of charmers-- Lindy Boggs the congresswoman, her daughter, Barbara Boggs Sigmund, a New Jersey candidate for the Senate, her son Tommy Boggs, a lawyer- lobbyist of great clout in Washington, and daughter Cokie Boggs Roberts, a reporter for National Public Radio)--Lindy's mother, Corinne "Coco" Morrison Jacobs, was charming until she drew her last breath. The older she got, the more often she got married. She wasn't rich, she wasn't powerful and she had her share of adversity, on which subject she was predisposed to laugh or change the subject, which in itself requires a certain amount of charm if the seams between subjects are to hold.

One time a merchant called her to complain that a recent check she had written had bounced. Coco bounced it right back to him. "Well," she retorted, "Isn't a bad check better than no check at all?"

One addendum. Rarely, unless we are drowning in narcissism, do we find ourselves charming, which brings to mind the time that a 10-year- old stood in front of his mother's dressing table mirror, flexing his torso, which could have slipped easily through a straw. He turned from one side to the other, sucked in his stomach, puffed out his chest and gave himself ersatz muscles by wedging his fists behind his upper arms.

"You certainly are getting strong," said his mother, who wasn't exactly lying and felt it was her obligation to advance his manhood in advance of the facts.

"I know," he answered, turning away from the mirror with a certain amount of ambivalence on his face. "But actually," he sighed, " I'm not as strong as I look."

One person in the room was charmed beyond words.