IT IS A CURIOUS THING about this capital city. For nearly two centuries it has stood as a proud symbol of the nation it reflects and represents, venerated and praised by Americans everywhere. Yet for the greatest part of that time Washington has been a backward capital sneered at and disparaged by Europeans and others who have bemoaned its lack of culture and scoffed at its pretentions.

Now, when Washington finally has emerged to fulfill its early promise and become a truly great world capital -- the most important city in the world, many believe -- it is the citizens of other nations who look deferentially to Washington for leadership while Americans are heard inveighing against it as an alien place detaced from the reality of the land that surrounds it. In the present climate of political assaults on government, there are even cries to reduce greatly the influence of Washington on national events. Washington, in the view of its critics, is part of America's problems, not its solutions. Herein lies both a premise about our capital city and a great continuing paradox about it.

Premise: For better or worse, Washington is America, quintessentially, indisputably a mirror of all the country's strengths and weaknesses. It always has been and always will be.

And today, despite all the expressions of anger and envy directed against it, Washington stands poised on the threshold of what promises to be its most influential period politically and, in terms of the life of the city, its most creative one culturally and commercially.

Paradox, not one but many:

*The citadel of democracy, the place where all the great debates and ultimately great political decisions about civil rights and civil war have taken place, was torn from the territory of two slave states, and remained a bastion of segregation until only little more than a generation ago.

*The city of great monuments and shining memorials and beautiful park land was carved out of a great swamp in a low-lying natural amphitheater formed by the confluence of two rivers. The setting was so oppressively humid and unhealthful that Washington was declared a hardship post for diplomats. Everyone from the president down judged it uninhabitable during the long summer months. Indeed, for the first 70 years of its existence, the very center of the monumtal city, between what is now the Mall running from the towering Capitol dome to the Washington Monument, was a creek fed by many streams and tributaries. The creek was converted into a canal, which became an open sewer of notorious memory, called by residents "the indescribable cesspool."

*The heart of representative American government, in the form of the legislative bodies of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, has throughout most of our history shamefully neglected the capital city and the citizens here over which it has had responsibility. Congress refused funds for basic city works and denied voting rights for city residents. Those who lived here permanently came to think of themselves as the unwanted stepchildren of Congress, unwilling members of the last colonial outpost on American soil. In some ways, they still are.

THE SEAT OF national government, and thus the center of its bureaucracy, began with a total federal workforce of 130 clerks after the U.S. capital was moed from its temporary home in Philadelphia to its permanent one along the banks of the normally sluggish Potomac. Though the efforts directed from Washington by its permanent bureau led in time to the spanning of the continent, the exploration of outer space, the winning of wars and the emergence of the United States as the greatest world power, the actual increase in the numbers of bureaucrats has been small in proportion to the nation's population growth -- despite current mythology about the excesses of the perpetually expanding federal anthill. In fact, during the post-World War II era -- which saw the most dramatic imprint of Washington and the federal government on the country -- the proportion of bureaucrats has been static -- or, in the last decade, shrinking.

The city that was planned to become the glorious symbol of American democracy, where the plain people rule, took form in the mind of an irascible, vain, visionary and lagely unknown Frenchman trained as a military engineer and architect. Maj. Pierre Charles L'Enfant dreamed of creating a monumental federal city out of a wilderness, 10-miles square, diamond-shaped, with grand wide avenues and stately buildings, as a suitable symbol for the struggling young republic. As he put it in his letter to George Washington, he envisioned a place "magnificent enough to grace a great nation." L'Enfant resigned his post as capital planner after running head-on into the real estate speculators and landowners of that day. They objected to his lavish setting aside of land for public use. He then spent the remainder of his life languishing in poverty and obscurity. With somewhat fitting irony, after generations of neglect his memorial today in a city that puts up memorials to everything and everyone is not some graceful park or inspiring city setting. It is a collection of neo-Reich concrete structures bearing his name that hovers like some fortress of old over a noisy freeway.

This look back -- and look ahead -- at our capital city is prompted by another familiar facet of Washington, past and present: anniversary celebrations, which of one kind or another are always being commemorated in this most ceremonial of American cities. The Washington Post Magazine's quarter of a century of experience in chronicling the events that have dramatically changed the Washington area encompasses my own time here -- given, to be strictly accurate in my case, the addition of three more years of reporting on the city and its inhabitants.

To me, the extraordinary thing about that Washington on the threshhold of the tumultuous '60s is how little it had changed from the insular rather provincial capital of the past. True, the great changes that transformed Washington from its previous position as part-time center of politics into a genuine world capital already had taken place, or at least were fully in process of change. In particular, two historical episodes marked the evolution of that public coming of age in Washington.

First was the New Deal. The crisis of the Great Depression and what seemed the imminent collapse of America's capitalistic system resulted in the assumption of power of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the birth of the Age of Big Government. An influx of bright young professionals and indispensable clerical assistants flocked to Washington to fight the Great Depression. In so doing they vastly expanded the range and reach of the federal government's role in American life. They staffed the rapidly expanding new "alphabet agencies" of government and, most important for the future of the capital city, they stayed here after that battle was over. They became the permanent cadre of the federal government and permanent residents of the rising capital city. One statistic alone from that early period tells much of that story: just two years after FDR's inauguration, nearly one-third of all federal employes had been taken on since the advent of the New Deal. Their families (and that excludes the federal employees of Congress, judiciary and military) constituted more than half of the capital's entire population. Throughout the '30s their numbers continued to grow. So did the imprint they left on the rest of the country. In just seven years -- from June 1933 to June 1940 -- the number of federal employes in Washington had doubled from half a million to a million.

Even before the second great event that forever transformed Washington, World War II, the city had become a boom town boasting the largest number of automobiles per capita in the United States and the highest per capita rate of spendings and earnings in the nation. The immense defense buildup that began in the year preceding Pearl Harbor set off an even greater wave of activity and expansion -- 75,000 new government employes arriving each month, for instance, during 1941. After Pearl Harbor, Washington became the nerve center of the war. Into Union Station alone poured some 45,000 new people every day. The postwar period, when America stood supreme in the world economically and militarily and assumed the burdens and responsibilities of global leadership, continued the process of the increasing dominance of Washington on the international stage.

YET DESPITE the momentous changes, when I first came here the city still bore the unmistakable marks of the past. Washington was still a southern, segregated city and, politics aside, it was an unstimulating one. Its cultural life was third-rate, its city heartbeat slow, its general atmosphere stuffy. You couldn't even stand up to carry a drink from bar to table in a tavern, and the city went into paroxsyms of puritanical tut-tutting when one restaurant owner tried to install a single sidewalk caf,e. Eventually, it was permitted, but grudgingly, and only one such license was granted in the city. No Parisian graces for us, at least in public, in strait-laced somber Washington. Above all else, Washington indisputably was a company town. Everything and everyone, revolved around the single sun of politics. If you weren't connected with the government or didn't, eat, drink, and sleep politics you were not a part of Washington.

Small wonder that Europeans touring theUnited States looked scornfully upon the rudeness and raw crudities of Washington. As Margaret Leech observed of Washington in her splendid history of the Civil War period in the capital, Reville in Washington, published nearly half a century ago:

"All too typical of the young republic, the town was pretentious and unfulfilled. It had been ambitiously laid out over an area extending from the Potomac and the Eastern Branch or Anacostia River as far as Rock Creek on the west and Boundary Street -- later to be known as Florida Avenue -- on the north. Vast sums, by the standards of the day, had been spent on the public buildings, but they were widely spaced, unrelated and, for the most part, incomplete. In 60 years, men may construct a compact city; not Rome. The very grandiosity of the capital's conception called forth ridicule, and the often-quoted tribute, 'a city of magnificent distances,' had become a favorite jibe . . . "

Contempt with which foreign visitors viewed the imperfect, unfinished American capital was best expressed by Charles Dickens, who came to America for the first time in 1842. His travels inevitably led him to Washington. There he approached the White House bearing an official invitation from the 10th president, John Tyler, and accompanied by a distinguished member of the government. Casually strolling up to the front entrance, he entered a large hall and rang a bell. Once. Twice. Three times. No one answered. Dickens walked on through room after room on the ground floor. He passed men standing idly, their hats on, their hands in their pockets. Others lounged on the chairs and sofas, while still others lay about listlessly.

Dickens continued on. Upstairs, in a drawing room, he found other visitors awaiting audiences with the president.

Nearby, he inspected another chamber filled with waiting people.

What most upset Dickens was the behavior he observed from all these assorted Americans in their President's House. They all kept spitting upon the carpet.

WHAT its critics missed was the most important fact about the capital. Other great capitals, such as Athens and Rome and London and Paris, evolved into political preeminence out of their positions as great centers of commerce and then culture. Washington, alone among them, was created solely as a center of government.

The genius of L'Enfant's original idea of a capital city was the belief that Washington would become something more than a center of politics and government. As the writers of the best history of Washington, the Federal Writers' Project of the New Deal's WPA, put it nearly 50 years ago: "In planning a seat of American government, (L'Enfant) planned also the groundwork of a great community which he knew would develop here because the government was here. This fusion of interdependent capital and community motivated the plan which he inscribed upon the woods and marshes east of Georgetown nearly a century and a half ago; and it motivates today the city which has arisen on the essential pattern of that plan."

Finally that envisioned city of culture and commerce has risen to stand equally alongside the capital of government and politics. Washington today bears little resemblance to the city of just a generation ago. The Kennedy Center has spawned a vibrant and growing cultural life. The subway system has bound together the capital and its environs into a cohesive whole. The continuing influx of professionals -- lawyers, lobbyists, technocrats, journalists, publishers, scientists, scholars, doctors, "think tank" specialists -- has made Washington the most affluent city and its citizens the most highly educated per capita in the country. The renaissance of public areas downtown, the rehabilitation of decaying neighborhoods and the birth of new communities have contributed to a dramatic outpouring of new public facilities, better and more varied restaurants, a healthier and more tolerant atmosphere. The New Washington has become the world capital for information and news, for politics and diplomacy. It is also becoming a new commercial center. In all visible respects, it is a capital of success.

THAT very success has brought new problems. Increasingly, critics deprecate Washington's affluence, its privileges, its power, its aloofness, its arrogance. Those of us who live here are disparaged as being part of a special class who reside "Inside the Beltway" and thus out of touch with the real America. In this, Washington today experiences the same kinds of resentments, born of envy, that used to be expressed about New York.

Politicians of both parties, and especially presidential candidates (Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan), have learned they can profit by running against the presumed sins and excesses of the capital. Carter's jibes about Washington's "bloated bureaucracy" drew political blood -- and votes -- as did Reagan's sarcastic quips about the "puzzle palaces along the Potomac." The promise of the so-called Reagan Revolution, or at least its rhetoric, was to get government off the backs of the people, slash the bureaucracy, reduce the size and power of the federal presence directed from Washington. In reality, it has done none of those things. At most, Reagan has produced a political correction, not a change.

Ironically Reagan himself, the antigovernment, anti-Washington candidate, has by his own brilliant success at personalizing the presidency added luster to the symbols and ceremonies that surround the Office of President of the United States. Thus he has contributed to making Washington and the presidency seem more glamorous and more powerful. And it's most unlikely that any of his successors will either diminish the role of government in America or reduce the influence of Washington on national and international events.

As for the other criticisms about the New Imperial Washington of the mid-1980s, well, let this capital observer add a final personal observation. I believe some of our critics are correct. I worry that we are becoming, as they say, too affluent, too effete, too removed from the lives of ordinary Americans, too much the Capital of the Hustlers, the place of bright young people on the make. But compared with the past, there's no contest. I know of no metropolitan area today that combines such a mixture of stimulus and charm, and that promises to be even better tomorrow. I would rather be here than anyplace else.

Henry Adams, with his customary foresight, put it best. Writing to an English friend in 1877, he said of Washington: "One of these days this will be a very great city if nothing happens to it. Even now it is a beautiful one, and its situation is superb."

Right, as usual, Mr. Adams. I only wish you could see us now.