George Bush's budget director is (choose one):

a) A brilliant idealist committed to the long-term public interest

b) An ambitious cynic fed by the thrill of the game

c) Trying really hard to have it both ways

Never mind, for the time being, the Freudian slip that brought us to Dick Darman's rec room at 9 on a Wednesday night in June; that's another, more complicated part of the story. At the moment, the man who presides over the world's largest budget is hunting for another set of Ping-Pong paddles -- the good paddles.

Having found them, he prepares to serve. Of course, he says, this basement room of his is too small to play in properly. The real way to play is to set up the table out of doors, and --

Wham! Cramped quarters notwithstanding, he is quite good at this. Ah, but not as good as he would be, he points out, if he were properly warmed up.

Plock . . . He has this devious little serve that loops leftward into the court and then bolts right, off the table; you might call the serve, as one senator called this man's characteristic way of approaching a problem. Darmanesque. Worse is what he says, pityingly, as the ball passes under my paddle: "I'm sorry."

Don't apologize, he is told -- I'll return that serve yet.

"You won't." It's a statement of fact, delivered with a tinge of adolescent pride.

We continue, rallying back and forth. He hits a number of sharp, fast shots, mixing them up with spins -- and he also hits a fair number of flashy shots that miss the end of the table. "If we kept playing," he says, again matter-of-factly, "those would all go in."

I propose that we play an actual game. "You don't want to play with me," he warns, straight-faced. Besides, we haven't had dinner, and there's still an interview to do. "It'll be too late," he says, "by the time we warm up enough to play decently."

Before we stop, the tricky serve makes a last appearance. "Oh, sooorrry."

A glimpse of Dick Darman at play is enough to make you believe many of the stories about Richard G. Darman, master gamesman, at work. George Bush's director of the Office of Management and Budget is an object of endless fascination and debate in Washington. He is said to be arrogant and abrasive, competitive and driven; he is said to be one of the smartest men in government, and -- at long last, after years of the galling shame of being mistaken for a mere aide -- one of the most important.

Almost everyone agrees he combines a rare intellectual grasp of government with a bare-knuckles skill at power politics. Almost no one doubts that he is, from one motive or another, passionate about his work. But beyond that, there is little accord. Dick Darman, the man who knows all the numbers, just doesn't add up.

For example: He's one of the few non-elected career government officials to be found in top Republican circles -- yet he gave years of important service to the Reagan administration, which was dedicated to "getting off the backs of the people" the government Darman has committed his life to. For example: This wily bureaucrat was a willing participant in the Reagan policies that spawned an unprecedented federal budget deficit -- yet he's now the man who, in the name of cutting the deficit, has steadily nudged President Bush toward the political castor oil of higher taxes.

In some quarters, Darman is seen as a committed, even idealistic, public servant capable of a laudable pragmatism in the name of "getting from here to there." Says Elliot L. Richardson, the mentor under whom Darman served in five Cabinet departments: "I know him to be a person who is, who really is, committed to trying to discern and serve the public interest. He has no other real motivation."

But others, of all ideological stripes, see him as a deep-dyed cynic who is addicted to the action and power of being at the center of government, and who masks his expediency with grandiose speeches about long-term ambitions for the country. "I think he would do anything to advance himself," says one former colleague. "If the cavalry is winning, he's for Custer," says another. "And if the Indians are winning, he's for Sitting Bull."

The debate over Darman extends to his personal qualities. Fans describe someone whose only faults are the rough edges of a man who knows how smart he is, and has a no-nonsense love for his work. Detractors depict a petty tyrant, disdainful of others, given to temper tantrums, especially toward his staff. He is, they say, vindictive, capable of systematically planning the fall of a rival or enemy.

The curious thing is that even some of his oldest friends and associates seem unsure which is the real Dick Darman, pointing to incidents and qualities that support both views.

In truth, each view of Dick Darman is alone too simple. Darman, at 47, is properly seen not as unique but as typical: as the classic protagonist in democracy's most familiar tale. He may be spinning his narrative more skillfully and colorfully than anyone since Henry Kissinger. But his is, finally, just a very subtle rendering of Washington's old, old story: of the man with conflicting impulses, toward service on the one hand, and status on the other; toward the long-term pursuit of policy, and the short-term thrill of the game.

The federal budget, and Darman's efforts over nearly a decade both to address and to paper over the deficit -- to address simultaneously the warring imperatives of the long and short terms -- are the perfect expressions of his struggle. Just as his choice of two mentors, one for each decade of his government career and each facet of his ambition, reflects his divided nature.

"I think he's trying to have it both ways," says Tony Aldrich, who was one of his best friends at Harvard's business school and who views politicians with asperity. "There's not a one of them who can't make you an argument that this is what you need to do for the short term. And he's more comfortable with that argument than I would have expected him to be . . . I didn't think he was that pragmatic. I didn't think he was that cynical."

Darman's fans -- the most prominent being Darman himself -- believe him to be smart enough, complex enough, honorable enough to juggle his two impulses indefinitely. He has called himself "a long-term idealist and a short-term realist," as if these definitions posed no conflict. But the record, and common sense, suggest otherwise.

The only way to make Darman's years in government add up is to consider the life and character of the man himself, keeping in mind one thing: Even if it is true that government needs men like Dick Darman, the great probability is that Dick Darman needs government more.


An old friend summarizes Darman by paraphrasing what was once said about Theodore Roosevelt: "They said that every time he goes to a wedding he wants to be the bride, and every time he goes to a funeral, he wants to be the corpse. That's Dick Darman."

Says Edward J. Rollins, who served with Darman in the first-term Reagan White House, "Certainly Dick was probably the most brilliant guy in there, but he had an ego to match his IQ . . . He's the kind of guy who writes his own part bigger than anybody else's part, and wants to be the star."

Darman was born into money, and his wife inherited a large fortune in trust. In his few brief forays into the private sector, Darman has shown (if proof were needed) that he could prosper in any sphere he chose.

But the sphere he has chosen is government, and for two decades, Darman has conducted a steady march toward Washington's center stage. Beginning as an analyst in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, he spent the '70s working for Elliot Richardson, the very definition of traditional moderate Republicanism. Even in the Democratic years of Jimmy Carter, he and his first mentor were able to keep their hands in at the State Department, helping negotiate the Law of the Sea treaty. Though GOP moderates went into eclipse with Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory, Darman offered his experience to the newcomers from California. With his Richardsonian background -- not to mention two degrees from Harvard and a period teaching at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government -- he was the White House aide conservatives most loved to hate, yet he dodged their bullets to become an indispensable strategist of Reagan's presidency. Early in Reagan's second term he followed his second patron, White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, to the Treasury Department, and the title of deputy secretary.

His only real mistake of the Reagan years, it is widely said, was to underrate the political prospects of Vice President George Bush. Bush suspected Darman (rightly) of being a champion leaker, and blamed him for several leaks that reflected poorly on the vice president. Bush had "very strong reservations" about Darman's loyalty, according to a senior administration official. Nonetheless, Bush was eventually persuaded to give him a second chance -- and, after a model performance by Darman during the general election campaign, the job of OMB director. In little more than a year, Darman has again consolidated his power, placing himself at the center of George Bush's domestic policy and becoming the president's chief adviser on economic affairs.

How has he overcome so many political liabilities? Partly through the old-fashioned virtues of hard work and a specific, disciplined knowledge of his field. He works six or seven days a week, 12 or 14 hours a day. And with experience at HEW, Defense, Justice, State, Commerce and Treasury, as well as four years at the center of White House decision-making, he has to a rare degree been willing to engage the machinery of federal policy: the whole constellation of laws, programs, rules, budget accounts, regulations, sub-agencies and sub-sub-departments that some of the most important people in Washington describe, with a faint air of dismissal, as "the substance."

Today, standing for even a few minutes in Darman's office to watch the in-and-out traffic of staff members, it is clear he has an encyclopedic overall grasp of the behemoth. It is also, suddenly, easy to understand that abstract compliment widely paid to Darman: He has an uncanny analytic quickness, an ability immediately to spot the problem, the drawback, the inconsistency. Says one staffer, "If you're talking about something that you know really well, and he knows about 18 percent of what you do, he can just take you apart analytically."

But if Darman earned his way to the table the old-fashioned way, it is his supple political instincts that have raised him to such a powerful position.

"Darman has the best raw understanding of power of anyone I've ever run across since Henry Kissinger," says Rollins, now co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "He's the ultimate insider. He understands everything from office locations to controlling the mail to people being invited to meetings to always making sure your draft is the draft that gets marked up. He just has great instincts for the jugular."

Ask people what Dick Darman has done in his years in government and they tend to describe not specific achievements, but processes: He devised the process by which Reagan's legislative agenda would be sold. He devised the process through which congressional negotiators compromised to make the Social Security system solvent. Today, he hopes he is managing the process by which Congress and the White House, Democrats and Republicans, can together take the risks required to cut the deficit.

A man with a gift for process, however, is by definition a man who works best behind the scenes. And here Darman's talents and ambitions are out of step: For years, he has felt unrecognized, unheralded, in his finest sleights of hand.

During the Reagan years, Darman's staff was instructed to keep a bibliography, with separate sections for mentions of Darman in books, in periodicals and in newspapers; at times when Darman was in the news, the bibliography was updated often -- weekly or even every few days. As for the morning newspapers, secretaries were told to clip headlines and only the portions of the stories that dealt with Darman; those would be pasted up together on a plain sheet of paper, and then the clips would be assembled in batches, by newspaper and subject.

The stories that described Darman as an "aide" to Baker would not be saved at all. DICK DARMAN GIVES A HOUSE TOUR

Our first interview is scheduled for 6 o'clock on a Wednesday evening, but with Darman nothing is simple. The phone rings late that morning: He has a string of amendments to propose.

He has to go to a meeting at 7, he says. It's likely to be very boring, but if I'd care to -- he can't think why I would, but if I'd care to -- I could come along and see him in action.

Then we can have our interview. Except, well, first there's something else. "My parents are -- " Darman catches his slip, and starts again. "I mean, my wife and children are out of town, temporarily, in Boston." So Darman, a multimillionaire who employs a housekeeper, a wily sophisticate in shaping his public image through the press, proposes to divert the interview from downtown D.C. to McLean -- because he has to feed the pets. We'll stop at his house, then talk over dinner at a local restaurant.

It's easy to understand why a man would want to show off this house, a modern affair of clapboard and bricks and expansive windows tucked away down a long, hilly lane, on five and a half acres that overlook the Potomac. Standing on one of a series of terraces descending toward the river behind the house, you are surrounded by trees, and can see and hear almost nothing but the rushing of Little Falls just below.

"Have you ever seen anything like it?" he asks, not waiting for an answer, or hearing the one that comes. "Not 12 minutes from downtown, you haven't. There are no houses like this one anymore. Not this close."

But there is no stopping to admire the view. Restlessly, Darman leads on, conducting a tour. Through the sliding doors into the living room, up into a wing the Darmans added to house a series of studies -- more high ceilings, more bookshelves, more sweeping vistas. But before I can pause to admire anything, Darman is on the move again, flipping on lights, narrating all the while.

Darman doesn't drink or smoke, and professes indifference to food; this asceticism is apparent in the furnishings, which are tasteful but spare. Climbing the stairs at the opposite end of the house, he hurries past the wall of photos in the stairwell, pictures of him and his wife, Kathleen, in childhood, his brothers and sister and family, brushing off all questions about them; but he lingers upstairs to admire the enormous color photos he has taken of his two boys, Willy and Jonathan. "I guess," he says more than once, "this is a very child-centered house."

Into the bedroom, sparsely furnished with a joined pair of four-poster twin beds swathed in navy, and the simple antique desk at which Darman sometimes works. (Showing the bedroom, like showing the house, is entirely Darman's idea.) Scanning the desktop, I note, aloud, that he is reading T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets."

"Re-reading," he amends sharply.

Next door, the boys' bedrooms. Darman designed these rooms, he says proudly, and any child might envy them: They have loft beds recessed into the wall, under the eaves of the house ("The boys think we never look up there, so that's where the mess is") and skylights you can open and stand up in, to look out over the roof. Willy, the 13-year-old, has on and around his dresser an impressive collection of athletic credentials -- trophies, plaques, team photos. Darman acknowledges pride that his son is, as he was, an athlete, but soon focuses on the one disorderly element in the display: a summer camp trophy that hangs on the wall, a distinctly un-sleek plank of wood, with roughly painted letters and a green baseball glued to it. "That's got to be the ugliest trophy ever," Darman says.

It is a habit with him, constantly seizing on the discordant detail, always beating you to the punch he seems braced for -- pointing out the mess that lurks just out of view. "Isn't that a beautiful picture?" he will say, pointing at a photo of Kath cradling one of their babies. He took a lot of those, he says. "Of course," he then adds dismissively, "maternity is a very conventional subject."

We move back downstairs to the small, stark-white kitchen, and the breakfast room where the children's finger paintings are framed and hung on the wall. Still he is going at a near-jog, as photos, books, personal artifacts -- the revelatory details that are red meat to a journalist writing abut personality -- flash by. He points out what he wishes, and waves away questions about attractions that are not on the tour. The message seems to be that he would like to display his pride in this house, this family; but he would like also to control what is seen.

This tension in the evening seems emblematic of a larger tension in his life. Despite a clear hunger for recognition, he shelters his privacy carefully -- especially the events of his life before college.

Years ago he asked members of his family not to speak to the press about him, a request they honor ("Dick pretty much firmly has insisted on his right to keep his private life out of the public eye," says his brother John). He speaks as if his life began when he entered government. In early conversations about this article, Darman offered a list of possible sources -- all of them past and present professional associates, none dating back further than 1971. Explaining the absence of personal friends, he said that with the exception of his wife and children, his work life is his life. "There ain't no more of me to get."

On learning that I was interviewing old high school classmates of his, Darman scoffed at the idea. "Of course, this stuff is of no relevance," he said during a phone conversation. He said he assumed, however, that I would check with him about the trustworthiness of anyone I spoke to. "For instance, there's a man from high school who's made a sort of career of talking to reporters about me. Don't say this to him if you do speak to him, of course, but as far as I can tell he's a near-complete kook . . . I hardly even knew him." He mentioned a name -- the name of a man who had shared extensive and credibly detailed memories of Darman, a classmate in a class of only 17 boys.

Darman's cooperation for this article will finally end over the question of control. After the house tour, which concludes with Ping-Pong, Darman is pressed over dinner to proceed with the formal interview he has promised -- sitting down, with the tape recorder running. No, he says, he will only talk "on background," meaning that anything he says may be quoted, but not attributed to him. He doesn't want to do it for the tape recorder -- oh, and also, he doesn't really want to talk about his early life; that's all just tedious detail.

We are at an impasse, neither willing to abide by the other's ground rules. For now, a tour of his house is as close as we may get to a tour of his mind. The enduring image of the evening will have to be this one: of Darman, unprompted, flinging open the door of a closet to illustrate something he is saying about his marriage -- then quickly instructing me that the closet's contents are off the record, not to be written about.

Look at me, he says. But do not see. 'SOMETHING WAS BEING HANDED ON HERE'

At first it is hard to understand why Darman is so reticent about his childhood. In high school, he possessed "the cardinal virtues of the late '50s," according to his class- mate Joe Scott. "My impression was, here was the all-around boy. The girls. The sports. The academics. And depending on what company you were in, the order of importance changed."

He was captain and quarterback of the football team at the Rivers School, a small progressive prep school then located in the Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill; he was also captain of the wrestling squad and lacrosse team. He aced his studies (at least the ones he cared to), was a big wheel in student government and knew a lot about cars. To make his social success complete, he sometimes hung out with the kids from the local public high school, and belonged to their hot rod club, the "De-fenders."

Even then, he was competitive and somewhat cocksure. His motto, as recorded in his 1960 Rivers yearbook, was "I don't mind telling you." Says F. Ervin Prince, a former math teacher at Rivers, "I would have had to describe him as being somewhat arrogant in his attitude in class. But I think it's largely because he knew the work so well. He could do it so well he wasn't what I'd call a pleasant student to teach."

Prince gave frequent quizzes, writing the questions on the blackboard, and remembers that on one occasion, moments after the quiz began, Darman raised his hand to ask the teacher to clarify a word in question number eight. He told Prince later that he was trying to get "a little psychological edge" by convincing the class's other star student that he was almost through with the test. "He was about the only one I ever had who did something like that," says Prince.

"He had an incredible awareness of how smart people were," says Walter Channing, who met him years later at business school. "You know how some people are aware of the net worth of everyone around them? They just have a way of sifting all data for that information? Well, Darman used to have that for IQ. Any kind of information that might tell him how smart people were -- where they went to school, what their parents were like, how they talked -- he paid attention to."

His competitiveness extended too to "getting" the best women, according to several friends. As a Harvard freshman, he picked out two women he was interested in: They were, by general acclaim, two of the most sought-after women at Radcliffe -- bright, beautiful WASP leg- ends. Waiting until the last moment to sign up for a required freshman course, he lurked by the bulletin board to find out which section they would choose. He dated one of them seriously for several years; the other, Kathleen Emmett, he never succeeded in meeting as an undergradte -- but eventually married. To this day, says Ed Rollins, he talks about her being "the most beautiful woman on the Radcliffe campus. So I'm sure getting her was a contest too."

Almost anyone from Darman's past who is asked about the source of his drive offers the same speculation: Darman, the oldest of four children, was under enormous pressure to live up to the paternal legacy of Morton H. Darman.

"There was some sort of very unrelenting, competitive relationship he had with his father," says Rivers classmate Rich Williams. "You could always get a rise out of him by suggesting that snazzy car he drove around the parking lot was a gift from his father."

Darman's parents, who are retired today in Lincoln, Mass., abide by the family's no-comment policy. But Mort Darman is, by most accounts, a formidable figure. A textile executive, he raised his family in Woonsocket, R.I., and later in the wealthy Boston suburb of Wellesley Hills in an imposing red-brick house set up and back on a manicured lawn. He had joined his own father's business, and eventually became president of the Top Co., for a time the nation's largest maker of wool top (an early stage in the processing of wool, after it is cleaned but before it is dyed). He also spent considerable time in Washington, as president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, but was a canny enough businessman to diversify out of the fading textile industry into real estate and oil distribution.

He is said to have been a soft-spoken but authoritarian father. Darman himself has said, "My grandfather was a perfectionist and made one of my father. It was expected that I would succeed in everything I did. I expected it too."

Two old friends of Darman's, from two different phases of his life, independently arrived at an unusual adjective to describe Mort Darman: seamless. "That would be a big factor in your life, being worthy of that man," says Robert C. Lea, a former college roommate. "The relationship with his father is really critical."

It wasn't only a matter of exalted expectations, according to some old friends; it was also that Mort Darman, for whatever reason, was slow to offer his son approval when those expectations were met. "I knew for a fact he found the expectations from his father hard to deal with," says Aldrich. "His father was not a warm guy. In any encounter, you had the feeling your performance had not measured up."

When his father fell seriously ill in the early '80s, Darman told Laurence I. Barrett of Time magazine, it was painful in part because "I still wasn't successful in a way that really meant something to him."

The contrasts between father and son today are interesting. Mort Darman is remembered by one of his son's old friends as the kind of man who always wore a coat and tie and "must have had his hair cut once a week." Dick Darman, on the other hand, affects a casual disregard for appearances. He cuts his own hair, and does it badly: Swept back from his forehead, his straight brown hair ends, above his collar, at a miscellany of lengths. Staff members say he sometimes comes to work in scuffed loafers whose tassels are long gone. His collars are frayed, his suits are shiny with wear, his neckties are the kind that never run any danger of being in or out of fashion.

But do not be fooled. Dick Darman cares terribly for appearances, though of a different kind. He's very credential-conscious, according to people who work closely with him: "He wants people who went to the best schools around him," says one White House colleague. "He's aware of who went where, and how they did there."

In interviews he often mentions having studied literature for a year at Oxford, but almost never mentions that he has a master's degree in education -- from Boston University. Without disguising that he spent the first 13 years of his life in Woonsocket, R.I., he emphasizes his later upbringing in the far tonier Wellesley Hills. And he has de-emphasized the colorful reality of the Darman family background.

"The way he describes it is as this Brahmin family," says a former White House colleague. Over the years, the one- or two-line description of Darman's patrimony that appears in most press accounts has portrayed the family as a generations-old textile dynasty, all Yankee rectitude and Bostonian reserve.

In fact, the family is more extravagantly interesting than Darman usually lets on -- especially his grandfather, who first staked out the family fortune. Arthur Isaac Darman was born in 1889 in Kurelvitz, Russia, and, after emigrating to Rhode Island with his parents at the turn of the century, ran away, at 14, to join a pantomime company, George Adams's Humpty-Dumpty Show. He worked as a peanut vendor and an actor, and ultimately had to work his way back across the country, often as a dishwasher. Returning home at 20, he developed his father's modest business into the Arthur I. Darman Co., a small but lucrative firm that manufactured and traded in wool top. His love of vaudeville never died. As a sideline he developed and ran theaters; his kindness to actors was recorded in a 1945 article in the Saturday Evening Post about Woonsocket's Park Theater.

Arthur Darman loved living well, with gold-plated dishes and a theater in his house that seated 300; just before Prohibition went into effect, he bought more than 60 cases of liquor from the head chef at New York's Ritz-Carlton, and he often entertained Rhode Island's governor. Sometimes known as "The Little Napoleon," he was a short, dapper man who conducted negotiations from atop a throne of telephone books, according to former labor leader Larry Spitz, who organized the workers of the Arthur I. Darman Co.

Old friends of Dick Darman's remember that he used to describe his grandfather fondly, but with a sense of some embarrassment: He was definitely not the proper Bostonian character Morton would become. And Arthur was, among other things, a devout Jew. He was for 30 years the president of Woonsocket's Congregation B'nai Israel, whose synagogue -- the first in Woonsocket -- he was instrumental in building. He was a tireless fund-raiser for Jewish philanthropies.

Morton Darman also was religiously active. When the family moved to Wellesley, it too lacked a synagogue, and Morton became a founder and first president of Temple Beth Elohim, as well as a promoter of Jewish charities. He was more the restrained Yankee than his father, and quieter -- without being secretive -- in his religious activities. "I would have said he was an Episcopalian," says Wellesley resident Frank Conway, who worked with Mort Darman in civic affairs. The family was still religiously active enough to see to it that just before the family left Woonsocket, in May 1956, Dick Darman was bar mitzvahed at Congregation B'nai Israel. True to form, he was awarded a plaque as "outstanding student" in Hebrew school.

Today, Dick Darman belongs to an Episcopal church in McLean. Charlotte Hays has reported in the Washington Times that Darman grew touchy when asked about his grandfather and his religion, explaining that his background is "complex," including Jewish and Catholic forebears. He is, he said, "a mongrel and currently a practicing Episcopalian."

But the biggest part of Darman's inheritance was inescapable. "I have a feeling something was being handed on here, from his grandfather to his father, and Dick was the one it was being given to," recalls Lea, the college roommate. "Both of these men were very successful people. And the thing that was to be handed on was for Dick to be successful in some unusual way." 'DICK WAS NEVER STARRY-EYED'

Hanging on Darman's office wall is a photo, clipped from his Harvard class of '64 yearbook, of President John F. Kennedy at a Harvard football game in the last autumn of his life. Behind him in the crowd you can make out, dimly, the undergraduate Dick Darman.

Darman has spoken often about being inspired to public service by JFK -- a fellow son of Massachusetts and Harvard who was elected the same fall that Darman came to Harvard Yard. "JFK was an enormous influence on all of us," says Scott Harshbarger, another college roommate of Darman's who is now the district attorney of Middlesex County, Mass. When Darman graduated from college, Harshbarger says, "He really did feel that a very active part of his life was going to be a role in public affairs."

A look at Darman's early career casts some doubt on this inspirational account of his ambitions. For it was only after seven years of graduate work at five universities that Darman would seriously pursue his life's passion. "Dick was never starry-eyed. He never struck me as the type," says Tony Aldrich.

If anything about the Kennedy administration inspired him, it was probably less the bear-any-burden zeal of the young president than the rationalist spirit of the hotshot young technocrats who were brought into government to work on the New Frontier. Walter Channing remembers Darman's fascination during a visit to the business school by Alain Enthoven, one of the "whiz kids" who headed Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara's civilian brain trust, the Office of Systems Analysis. "Darman was turned on by his reputation, his aura," recalls Channing.

But his first move right out of college was to spend a year in France with another Harvard roommate, Richard Keyes. The two audited a hodgepodge of subjects -- French history, philosophy, art -- for a term each at the Universite d'Aix-en-Provence and at the Universite de Paris. He had majored in government in college, but according to several friends was also drawn toward a career in liberal arts -- as a writer, perhaps, or teaching literature. But at the end of the year Darman returned to Harvard for the two-year business program. "I think he envisioned himself going into business," Keyes recalls. "At the same time, I think he wasn't sure whether the business world was going to be wide enough for him."

By the end of business school, Tony Aldrich says, Darman seemed depressed and withdrawn. "I think he had a hard time figuring out what to do. And I think he was pretty pessimistic about finding something he'd be interested in."

On graduation, he took a job in the Washington office of McKinsey & Co., the management consulting firm -- and didn't last the summer before quitting in boredom. In September he married Kath Emmett. While she did graduate work in English literature at Tufts, he pursued his master's degree in education at Boston University. Then he followed her to Oxford, where she had a fellowship, and spent a year studying literature.

In 1969, he again returned to Harvard, for a PhD program in education. It was this that would finally pull him off the path of the perpetual graduate student. He got involved in a consulting project for what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and in 1971 was hired by HEW as a deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Planning and Evaluation. He never finished his PhD, and never looked back.

"He struck me in some respects as a guy who got lucky," recalls Tony Aldrich. "After that, he seemed really charged up . . . It was a quick shift, from being depressed about {his career} to being unleashed . . . It's kind of like he had to get out of town to get going." THE RICHARDSON YEARS

In Washington, Darman quickly formed one of the two relationships that would most advance and influence his career: with Elliot L. Richardson, then Richard Nixon's HEW secretary.

Richardson was a true son of Brahmin Boston, and also someone who had found in government a personal way of dealing with high expectations. With a background as a crusading prosecutor and a Harvard/East Coast establishment pedigree, he stood, in the early '70s, for the moderate, centrist tradition in the GOP.

"Richardson was, among Cabinet officers, unusual," says John Palmer, a former HEW colleague who is now dean of Syracuse University's Maxwell Graduate School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. "He had a very powerful intellect, and liked to think about the issues that were in his domain in very conceptual, abstract and principled terms. And then work back from that, to think about specific programs and policies."

For Darman, with his natural analytic abilities and rationalist approach to life, this was a perfect fit. "They were kindred spirits, I think," says Palmer. The young analyst first came to Richardson's notice, the former secretary remembers, when he wrote a memorandum that "struck me by its incisiveness and clarity." The subject, as Richardson recalls it, was a proposed framework for identifying the level of government at which a given problem could most appropriately be addressed -- precisely the kind of abstract question that engaged both Richardson and Darman. Richardson asked Darman for further memos, and gradually came to rely on him as a sort of one-man think tank.

By 1973, Darman had moved from the policy shop into the role of special assistant, joining the coterie of smart young aides -- "Richardson's mafia" -- who stayed with him from one assignment to the next. Increasingly, his analytical skills were turned toward temporal problem-solving. And when Richardson was moved to secretary of defense, in Nixon's post-election Cabinet shake-up, Darman moved too.

Their time at Defense lasted only a few months, however, before Richardson was nominated attorney general, following Richard Kleindienst's Watergate-related resignation. Here too Darman followed as a special assistant. Richardson entertained elegant visions of reforming the criminal justice system, but he and his mafia were immediately mired in the problem of Vice President Spiro Agnew. Darman was one of a small group that hammered out a deal in which Agnew agreed to resign, pleading no contest to one count of tax evasion. Immediately after Agnew resigned, Justice was plunged full force into President Nixon's constitutional struggle with special prosecutor Archibald Cox. When the conflict reached its climax in the so-called "Saturday Night Massacre," with the president's demand that Cox be fired, Darman and several other aides joined Richardson in resigning.

But in the ensuing years Darman never strayed far from government -- or from Elliot Richardson. He joined Richardson at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, while also entering a consulting business, ICF Inc., that performed mostly government-related and policy-consulting work. When Gerald Ford nominated Richardson to be secretary of commerce in late 1975, Richardson immediately created for Darman the role of assistant secretary for policy.

With Ford's loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976, Richardson became Carter's ambassador to the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea; Darman went with him. At the same time, Darman returned to ICF, and also -- again, with Richardson's support -- commuted to Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government as a lecturer in public policy.

The end of the '70s marked the eclipse, within the GOP, of Elliot Richardson's brand of moderate Republicanism. The man who had once been thought a presidential contender, who had been lionized for standing up to Richard Nixon, would spend the next decade more or less on the sidelines, in law firms. In the '80s, his most prominent protege would go on to ever-greater success in a world made new by the landslide victory of Ronald Reagan's conservatism.

For this, Darman would need a new patron. He carried with him, into the '80s, some of the lessons of Elliot Richardson, especially his literacy in institutional subtleties and levers of power -- the paper flow, the role of language, the importance of job description over title. It was probably from Richardson that Darman acquired too his talent for casting anything controversial, including himself, in terms so abstract as to dissipate their friction.

But Darman would far outstrip his first protector, who was known, finally, as something of a naif. Richardson didn't win many battles within the Nixon administration -- partly, of course, because he spent so little time in any one Cabinet seat, but partly because his talents leaned so strongly to the abstract. On Capitol Hill he was seen as reserved, aloof and a little otherworldly. Playing against the John Ehrlichmans, he lost graciously -- but he lost. He was a man who spoke lovingly of a career "working a margin" outside the center of power -- a statement impossible to imagine, today, from the mouth of Dick Darman. And no matter how greatly Richardson is appreciated as a student of institutions, the one act of his government career that will long be remembered is his principled decision to quit it.

Today Richardson speaks somewhat wonderingly of Darman's ascent, and his analysis of Darman's talents is revealing. Darman's thinking is distinguished by three attributes, Richardson says in his measured, rather Victorian way: "One, wishful thinking never distorts his view of anything. It's fair to say that non-rational factors do not distort his view of any- thing . . .

"The second is that he is much less prone than other people to allow his view of a situation to fall into a pattern or a mold imposed by convention . . . He instinctively understands the fallacy of believing that there is a real thing behind every label.

"The third asset he has in addressing problems is that he knows that he is dealing with a dynamic, and not a frozen cross section. That the impact of what he's doing is downstream, and that he needs to try to sense the direction of the forces that comprise the current, and the ways in which they interact."

Richardson and Darman are neighbors, and over the years they have often shared the morning drive into Washington. But lately, Richardson says, "I don't see Darman very often . . . I know he's so busy, I know he needs time with his family." It is hard to know whether, under his patrician humility, a note of irony lurks: "I just try to -- you know, I don't want to bother him." THE BAKER YEARS

James A. Baker III, the smooth Texas outsider who was recruited to be Reagan's first White House chief of staff, has next to no interest in the theory of governance, and little passion for the pursuit of innovative domestic policy. While obviously smart, he is not at all intellectual. The only things Baker has in common with Richardson are the Republican Party, a good WASP pedigree and a hand in promoting Richard G. Darman.

Baker had known Darman slightly in 1976 when the two briefly overlapped in Commerce Department jobs. Still, he didn't know much about this man who suddenly, in the fall of 1980, sought him out in Houston with proposals, plans, offers of help -- on the phone and by Federal Express.

But Baker is a quick study, and it was soon obvious that Darman was offering him gold -- an intimate knowledge of the levers and man traps that determine power and survival in Washington. In return, Baker offered Darman a chance to join the inner circle of the new administration, and had the political capacities to sell the schemes of his more abrasive junior partner. Over the next six years, the two would form an almost perfect symbiosis. And it was with Baker that Darman's political, short-term, game-playing skills -- his more cynical side -- reached full flower.

Darman quickly became the administration's jack of all trades. Initially bearing the humble title of deputy assistant to the president, Darman became the channel for all paper that reached the Oval Office; among other things, he decided each evening what the president should read that night. In a presidency as passive as Reagan's, that was tantamount to controlling the president's information.

It was also Darman who devised the legislative strategy group, a small (six or seven people) circle that met each evening to plan the advancement of Reagan's agenda. While Baker rival Edwin C. Meese III was swimming in Cabinet council meetings and position papers, the group effectively seized control of administration decision-making in the crucial policy battles that are played out between the White House and Capitol Hill.

"Darman did a lot of the best thinking in the group," recalls David R. Gergen, former White House communications director. He came to each meeting with a single-page agenda, Gergen says, which served as the starting point for "an intensive effort to strategize everything down to the last detail. What could go wrong. What your fallback position was going to be . . . the pros and cons, upside, downside, around-the-corner questions." For the risk-averse Baker, Darman was the political equivalent of a minesweeper.

The White House was the perfect venue for Darman's fascination with process, with making the pieces -- the policy, the personalities, the press, the politics -- fit together. Especially Baker's White House, where the trick was to advance a revolutionary new economic policy while restraining what Darman and Baker privately thought of as the amateurs and right-wingers who had done so much to elect Ronald Reagan.

Inevitably, working in the White House emphasized the expedient side of Darman's nature. "He certainly got thrust into positions where it would be harder and harder to be effective, and be seen as a loyal participant, if you didn't increasingly emphasize the short-term pragmatism," says one former colleague. "You have to be weighing the president's short-term political interests in everything you do."

Darman's success also required a careful compartmentalization of his life. As he freely admitted, his wife took a dim view of politics and government -- especially the politics of the Reagan administration. Several old friends believe Kath Darman voted for George McGovern in 1972. The Darmans dealt and still deal with their differences in part by avoiding the Washington social scene; Kath, who has taught at several local universities, avoids even the quasi-mandatory social events he attends.

After Baker and Darman moved to Treasury in 1985, as secretary and deputy secretary, the department was routinely described as "the Baker-Darman Treasury." Here Darman had a chance to show his capacities as an initiator of policy -- most notably in Treasury's activism in driving down the dollar and coordinating economic policies with major allies. "Dick was certainly the intellectual driving force behind moving towards international economic policy coordination," says Robert Zoellick, a former Darman aide who now works as counselor to Secretary of State Baker.

But in some important respects, the pair remained cautiously tied to political accomplishment. Their major domestic preoccupation was tax reform. When Darman and Baker moved to Treasury, they were scornful of the politically inflammatory reform bill that Donald Regan's Treasury Department had produced, but they concluded that, with the president solidly on record favoring tax reform, they had to produce something that could be called a tax reform victory on Capitol Hill.

It was Darman at his best and his worst. He made himself the bride at the wedding, learning the ins and outs of the tax code and nudging aside the assistant secretary for tax policy to become Treasury's chief tax operative. Most observers were convinced that Darman truly favored tax reform, and worked tirelessly toward it. But he was never one of those who, at various points, took political risks in its pursuit. When Sen. Robert Packwood moved to save tax reform by burying a loophole-laden version his Finance Committee had been horse-trading over for days, proposing instead a radically stripped-down bill with almost no special-interest deductions and far lower rates, Darman immediately gave it the administration's support; but he had been equally ready to push the special-interest extravaganza that was on the table the day before.

The professional tax-writing staffs of the Treasury Department and the congressional committees involved, long accustomed to Washington maneuverings, were nonetheless shocked by some of the ways Darman proposed in conference to make sure the bill did not lose revenue. For instance, since the Senate bill phased out the deduction of sales taxes, why not publish new charts upping the deductions -- thereby boosting the "savings" that appeared to come from eliminating them?

"He would come in with anything he thought he might be able to make a case for without smiling," recalls one veteran of the tax wars.

In the end, Darman was credited as a major strategist for one of the Reagan era's most important legislative achievements. The credit he got, however, was never enough. Throughout his Reagan years, Darman rankled at not being recognized for his central role in the web of administration policy-making. It wasn't for lack of cultivating admirers in the press corps. But as often as not, he was known by the galling shorthand "aide" or "staffer."

His sensitivity on this point was so well known that during Reagan's second inauguration, mischievous colleagues arranged to have Darman's special inaugural license plate say "BAKER AIDE." Darman was "livid," remembers one of the participants. "He went out and bent it in half."

He could not truly get his due, he felt, until he ceased being, in Washington argot, "Richardson's guy" or "Baker's guy"; until he had a Cabinet seat of his own. Thus he was reportedly furious not to be asked to succeed David Stockman in 1985; worse still was to be passed over for someone like James C. Miller III, who became such a bland budget director that Hill staffers nicknamed him "Miller Lite."

Darman resigned from Treasury in 1987 to become a managing director at the investment banking firm Shearson Lehman Hutton. He has told friends that there was simply not much challenge left in the Reagan administration -- no real agenda, no real will to pursue one.

But even as he left, his interest may have been in rising. Darman is canny enough to know that in the conservative GOP circles that have dominated the executive branch for the past decade, a desire to work full time in government is slightly suspect. Frederick N. Khedouri, formerly a top Stockman aide at OMB, says, "I always assumed, though he never said this to me, that his period of private service was -- this sounds crass, but that it was a kind of laundering process. Re- publicans can't be professional public servants." 'AT SOME POINT, THERE IS AN OBLIGATION TO BE SERIOUS'

The good news for Darman is that at last he has a seat of his own in the president's Cabinet. By some accounts, his accession to real power -- like proof that the snazzy car was not a gift from his father -- has relaxed him, taken the anxious, abrasive edge off his personality. OMB, especially in the hands of a shrewd executive, has many powers beyond the simple accounting of government funds, and Darman has already brought the agency back to its Stockman-era heights as the central nervous system of domestic policy.

The bad news is that Darman's perceived success or failure will depend on whether he can "solve" the intractable budget deficit.

Darman's critics see a kind of justice here, for Darman was among those most responsible for creating the Reagan-era legacy of red ink. David Stockman's book, The Triumph of Politics, records Darman's knowing complicity in the deficit pileup -- especially in the passage of the Conable-Hance version of the supply-side tax cut originally proposed as Kemp-Roth. The book effectively climaxes on July 23, 1981, when Reagan and his top circle met with congressional Republicans to pile onto the tax-cut bill enough expensive "incentives" that it could beat out a rival, similarly ornamented Democratic bill. The result of the negotiating session on that day, according to Stockman, was a bill that would reduce the federal revenue base by $2 trillion over the following decade.

Late that afternoon, the "numb" Darman and Stockman, the two men who best understood the numbers, stood talking in the West Executive parking lot. "I don't know which is worse," Stockman quotes Darman as saying, "winning now and fixing up the budget mess later, or losing now and facing a political mess immediately." After a moment of uncharacteristically somber meditation, Darman pulled himself together. " 'Let's get at it,' he urged. 'We win it now, we fix it later. I can think of worse choices.' "

Darman and other White House moderates did try at several "later" points to fix the imbalance, and even succeeded more than once in selling Reagan on tax hikes. But they were not enough to avert the years of budgetary stalemate. Small wonder that congressional Democrats look on Darman's present incarnation with some skepticism.

He did nothing to dampen that skepticism with his submission, in January, of Bush's first full budget, which included many of the by-now-standard accounting gimmicks, imaginary "savings" and over-optimistic economic assumptions commonly used to disguise the true enormity of the deficit. Instead of the standard boilerplate introduction, he submitted a wide-ranging discussion of federal budgeting and future liabilities, full of punchy, rather cloying imagery: the budget as Cookie Monster, future liabilities as unseen "PACMEN" that threaten to gobble up resources. The playful tone annoyed some. But more offensive, to many Democrats, was what they saw as Darman's hypocrisy. "At some point," he wrote in passionate italics, "there is an obligation to be serious. At some point, partisan posturing must yield to the responsibility to govern . . . to complete the job of fiscal policy correction."

Democrats denounced the document as a thoroughly disingenuous piece of work -- the same old budget, wrapped in a masterpiece of finger-pointing. "There are two Dick Darmans," thundered New York Rep. Charles Schumer. "There is Dr. Jekyll-Darman the pamphleteer and Mr. Hyde-Darman the budgeteer -- and the two don't add up."

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine called it "the ultimate example of the old saying, 'Do as I say, not as I do.' I know of no person more responsible for the practices of the past decade, spanning two administrations, than Mr. Darman."

In other words, here again were the two Dick Darmans -- the long-term idealist and the short-term realist, happily ignoring the improbability of their partnership.

But as this year wears on, it seems that the two are finally merging, for the simple reason that the country's long-term interest in eliminating the deficit coincides more and more with Darman's short-term interest in pulling off a heroic "big fix." Increasingly, as the economic risks of delay have risen, the potential political payoffs to Darman for action have increased.

Darman has long believed the deficit can be addressed only through a bipartisan agreement that essentially "handcuffs" politicians together in a nonaggression pact: Republicans won't go after Democrats for raising taxes, in other words, and Democrats won't go after Republicans for cuts in entitlement programs like Social Security. It is "the political equivalent of an immaculate conception: a compromise that materializes without any politician having to take the blame," as Darman described it in a 1987 op-ed piece.

This is what Darman has tried to promote in the budget summit that has met over the past 2 1/2 months. And he is widely credited (or reviled, depending on your point of view) as the administration strategist most responsible for persuading the president to renounce, last month, his anti-tax pledge -- a move Democrats called a vital precondition for any further progress in the talks. Bush's willingness to do so has been widely taken as a sign that the administration -- and Darman -- are serious about deficit-cutting this year.

In fact, a confluence of circumstances -- including slower-than-anticipated growth and the multibillion-dollar weight of the savings and loan crisis -- may have made it impossible to slide through another year without real change. The Gramm-Rud- man-Hollings deficit reduction law sets a deficit target for fiscal year 1991 of $64 billion; at present, OMB's sunniest analysis -- not counting, of course, the exploding cost of the S&L bailout -- predicts a deficit of more than $168 billion. For the first time, allowing the ax of Gramm-Rudman's mandated across-the-board cuts to fall in October would result in genuine cutbacks of vital government services.

Even if negotiators could finesse the problem for one more year, that would only push it into 1991 -- and George Bush's reelection effort. So Darman has been working in a pressured, now-or-never atmosphere. At this writing, it isn't clear whether the strategy can work: As of mid-July, congressional negotiators were still far apart, on both what taxes might be raised and what domestic spending might be cut. In the meantime, Darman must walk a fine line between scaring Congress into action and scaring the financial markets into panic. It doesn't help that despite his careful efforts to develop a mellower manner, he is widely mistrusted on the Hill. Even House Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta, said to be one of the Democrats most appreciative of Darman's efforts, says, "You deal with Dick Darman, but you always watch your back."

He can't be seen to fail at this if, as is widely believed, he hopes to rise higher -- to treasury secretary or even, one day, to secretary of state. But despite the pressures of his predicament, Dick Darman is savoring the limelight. "I think he enjoys this sort of situation, which places an enormous premium on cleverness, and coming up with formulas that satisfy everyone's problem," says Fred Khedouri. "That was the thing he was always really good at." ON THE ROAD

The man who holds the nation's purse strings does not bother to buckle his seat belt. Fitting his key, with its Batman keychain, into the ignition, he settles impatiently into his Mercedes (license DD-20) and takes off.

As he drives, he talks. Dinner, like Ping-Pong, has come to a desultory end, with no official score. Now, having promised to drive me back from our hours-long detour into Northern Virginia, he has a last few minutes in which to convince me of the existence of Dick Darman, idealist.

Darman can be a persuasive man. He has a great talent for making people feel that he, better than anyone, understands their dilemma, their position, their problem. Rep. Barney Frank has aptly summarized his modus operandi: "He's very good at giving people the impression he really agrees with them," Frank told reporters in March. "There are people always in this town that let you know that they're the secret good guy. They're really fighting hard inside against these other people for the right things . . . And I think Darman is a master at being a secret good guy."

He has convinced supporters of supply-side economics that he agrees with their views; he has convinced sympathetic journalists that he is a man who treasures words, a fellow observer of the scene; he has made old friends see him as a closet liberal who will one day, given enough power, allow his compassion to flower. And he has made many, many people believe that under the armor of the bureaucrat beats the heart of an optimistic idealist.

Over weeks of interviews for this story, friends and former colleagues made passionate cases for this Dick Darman. It is, they argue, the Darman who gives controversial speeches, which he writes himself, denouncing the "corpocracy" of shortsighted businesses and the greedy "now-nowism" that makes Americans such champion consumers and poor savers. It is the Darman who is nuts about the space program, shoring up the NASA budget and sending his kids to space camp. It is the Darman who talks up a needed transformation in American values.

It may have been the Darman who, earlier this evening, slowed his headlong house tour long enough to show me his photo album, bound in rich blue leather. Outside, it was characteristically literal: RICHARD G. DARMAN/PORTFOLIO, it said in gold lettering. But its contents were testament to a certain innocence. With a very few exceptions, the pictures were all of two subjects -- his boys and what could only be called Americana: an off-track betting parlor on Labor Day . . . flags and fireworks on the Fourth of July . . . a lone Marine playing taps. "Isn't that quintessentially American?" he said, again and again, as he flipped through the book.

Now, as Darman drives down the George Washington Parkway toward the Roosevelt Bridge, he continues to talk, excitedly, animatedly. By speaking off the record, in the nighttime intimacy of a car ride, he may hope to do what public officials always hope to do in the phony frankness of their confidential chats with reporters: convince me that he is dropping his guard, showing the one true Darman. As always, the vapor of self-certainty leaks off him like rocket fuel, but his customary air of irony is gone. He is unconstrained now by the senior official's need for sanctimony, free to explain his great visions.

While he talks, he begins gesturing -- with his right hand, with his left, with both at once. At crucial points, he looks from the road to his passenger, to be sure he is understood. The car meanders across the center line . . . then back . . . and again over the line. Darman has slowed down, though not nearly as much as he should have; driving has become one of those muzzy details that his busy brain, in its own thrall, tunes out.

No one could drive this badly without sincerity. It is real (if hair-raising) proof that the well-meaning, earnest Dick Darman is in there somewhere. The one who really believes he could fix the problems of the inner cities (that he will!); that when he has finally risen far enough to amount to something, he will be free to turn all his energy and intelligence to the important goals.

It is possible, then, to believe in the existence of both the cynic and the idealist. Darman does: He really believes that he can operate at two speeds. That government operates at two speeds. One is the fast, day-to-day whirl of the Washington game, in which all that matters is the reputation of this week; the other is the lofty, long-term, incremental pace at which true creeping change takes place in a democracy, over periods far longer than most actors' attention spans.

As I cower in the plush leather of Darman's passenger seat, it strikes me that his two modes match the horizons of a brilliant undergraduate. Intensely, painfully status-conscious on the one hand, grandly theoretical on the other, youth doesn't yet intuit the middle ground that will make up most of life. And Darman too seems to lack any attachment to the median reality. But this is what Washington really manufactures for the multitudes outside the Beltway: taxes and Medicare and student loan policy -- decisions that Americans have to live with, decisions that last longer than the hummingbird concerns of Washington's in-crowd, and are experienced in far more immediate ways than the long-term abstractions of which Darman is so fond.

When he grows up, Darman believes, he will be free to move from his near-term strivings to his far-term visions. The secret good guy knows -- he just knows -- that he's incorruptible enough to bide his time. And that may be the true measure of his arrogance.