Clark M. Clifford, 79, now a Washington lawyer, has been a counselor and confidant to presidents, served as secretary of defense from 1968-69 and is a longtome observer of the ways of Washington.

Q. What makes Washington a special place, and what are the changes that you have observed here?

A. Washington is not only the capital of the United States. Washington is the capital of the world. It's slightly bromidic, but it's just as true as it can be. Go back to the beginning of the century. The great capitals of the world were London and Paris and Moscow and possibly Rome. Washington played a very minor part. Washington was not important because the United States was not a world figure. We began to come into a different position after the first World War, but I would say that our entry into the second World War and the activities that transpired afterward themselves created the greatest change in Washington.

Keep in mind one of the most important parting thoughts from our first president, George Washington, in his farewell address was not to become involved in foreign entangling alliances. Wars had gone on between countries of Western Europe from time immemorial, and his advice was very good. That had been followed all through the years. That was part and parcel of the American reason. It was in the second World War, in the war itself and more importantly in what came after the war, when we became a primary world figure.

Washington has changed enormously today from what it was 40 years ago. And the reason why is because the country saw fit, the United States saw fit, to step up and take world leadership, and we could do it at a time when we had enormous assets. We had not been damaged by the war; the Soviets had lost maybe 20 million of their people; our military strength was unsurpassed; our economic power was great; and we had the bomb. So the power that we exerted wthin was unique and unusual in human history.

There is a marvelous quote by a British historian in which he says that the 20th century will be remembered not because of the invention of nuclear energy but because one of the great nations of the world saw fit to bend down and help the other nations that would have expired without their help. So we came out of that period with world leadership, and Washington developed as we recognized that world leadership and met it.

Washington has become the center. Forty years ago businessmen hardly ever came to Washington. If somebody had to come, they'd send some third- or fourth-level fellow. That's all changed. As the country grew in its economic strength and worldwide influence, so did the government grow and so did Washington grow. More and more in the last 40 years, the government has inserted itself into the commercial and industrial life of the nation. You don't make important decisions, if you're a businessman today, without first getting a reading on what goes on in Washington. The fact is the capital has gradually, bit by bit by bit, advanced and advanced and advanced until it is now the most important city in the country. New York remains the financial center. Washington is the political center, and curiosly enough to a great extent Washington is also almost the economic and commercial center of the country.

Now we are in the midst of a change at the moment in this Reagan period. In his approach to government, Ronald Reagan has said he is going to restructure the political form in the United States. I disagree heartily. In the year 2000, as you look back over the electrocardiogram of this period, I think it's going to be a temporary blip. I don't believe it's going to be seen as a whole change in our governmental structure. I don't believe it's going to be a whole change in our political structure. I think so much of it flies in the face of inherent beliefs on the part of the American people. The American public has had throughout the decades and generations of great respect for its national government. They have had great pride in it. There were excesses that came from the New Deal and the Fair Deal and, as economic pressures grew, a feeling on the part of many Americans that they were being used, that their taxes kept increasing and that the country was filled with deadbeats, that these "liberal" programs were feeding a lot of people that should be out working.

Another illustration. I have felt a sense of deep inner pride at the progress that our country has made in seeing to it that we don't have second-class citizens anymore. Why, the last 40 years has been remarkable in that regard. I go over to have lunch at the drugstore near here because I can do it in 20 minutes. Nine out of 10 times I'm sitting between two blacks. They could hardly have walked in there, much less sit at the lunch counter before. That whole change that you can see every day here in Washington has been a marvelous lesson to the rest of the world.

Of course other countries have attained worldwide preeminience and then subsided: the Fall of Roman Empire. One time in the world almost all paths led to London. The sun neve set on the British Empire. That's all gone. So if you wonder what Washington will be like in the Year 2000, it would be my hope that the United States will continue to give the kind of leadership that it has in the past, then the preeminence of our coutnry will be reflected in the preeminence of Washington. It comes down to that.