Harried, impatient, probably tired, John Henry Sununu barreled out of the Capitol and into a cluster of reporters. After months of angry negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders on a workable budget, the package had been unveiled to a rebellious rank and file who began, within hours, bleating their disapproval of the deal. Trent Lott of Mississippi, for one, had been wondering in front of the cameras whether President Bush and his men were still Republipublicans. What did the chief of staff think of the senator's comments?

"Senator Lott has become an insignificant figure in this process," Sununu snapped.

There are a lot of names you can call people in Washington, but "insignificant" is among the worst. Lott, a conservative Republican who tried to make a joke out of it by printing up buttons that said "Insignificant," was nevertheless stung by Sununu's label. When I asked him about the incident a few days later, it was like striking a match around a gasoline pump.

"I don't understand, don't have ANY idea, why he said it," Lott said. "I'm going to be here FOR SURE for four years and two months and maybe longer. There are only 45 Republicans over here, and one day, they are going to NEEEEED my vote."

So maybe Sununu will apologize and you guys will make up, right?

Lott stared a moment before he replied, then said each word through his teeth. "He is going to have to crawl over here and BEG for it . . . He just stuck the wrong pig."

People who don't like Trent Lott snickered behind their hands about how the president's bully boy had gored the rebellious senator. On television, no less. But those same people noted that for a smart man -- and Sununu's IQ is right up there near the recorded limits -- this was dumb. Chalk up another enemy. Chalk up another Sununu victim who will not forget being humiliated publicly, or semi-publicly, or even on the phone, in conversations that would normally be private except that the most soft-spoken people sometimes find themselves yelling back at the bellowing voice on the other end of the line. Almost two years after taking on one of the toughest jobs in Washington, former New Hampshire governor turned White House administrator John Sununu has made plenty of enemies. They are in the White House and outside, on the Hill and in the press.

He has one important friend, of course -- the president -- and that might seem to give him license to break a little china now and then. Except that people who have lived in this town and watched how it works know that having one powerful friend, even that one, is never enough.

"I am scared to death for him," says a longtime political associate. "They are everywhere, just sitting there, waiting for him to slip." SHARKS IN THE POTOMAC

When President-elect Bush announced shortly after the 1988 election that John Sununu would run his White House, many who knew Sununu -- especially in New Hampshire -- suggested that he would scorch the earth too quickly, bomb out after a few weeks of high-decibel negotiations with people accustomed to calling each other "the Honorable" in public and knifing each other behind the scenes. They said that Governor So-Know-It-All (to use one of the New Hampshire nicknames that followed Sununu to Washington) didn't know enough to survive in the big leagues.

Yet there he stands, it seems, in every White House photo published in the last two years, a pudgy, rumpled figure positioned a few feet behind the lean, well-curried Bush, like the head of the chess club with the president of the inter- fraternity council. And the question becomes: How did the Governor, as he is called with respect by his staff and with a snarl on the Hill, confound the skeptics who thought he'd be long gone by now?

Much of the answer, of course, has to do with the extended honeymoon George Bush enjoyed: No matter what you think of a chief of staff, it's hard to argue with him when the boss's approval rating is 79 percent. Some of the answer has to do with Sununu being more adaptable than his doubters expected.

But this fall -- with Bush facing a shaky economy, a Republican Party divided by the budget battle and a potentially disastrous confrontation in the Middle East -- the John Sununu Story has begun to shape up as a traditional Washington melodrama: Guy with big head gets in power and starts throwing his weight around. Things stop going his way. Sharks begin circling in the Potomac.

This year's remake stars a man who can be brutal and bullying, but who can be funny and charming when he wants to be. It's the tale of a family man, a man whose home base -- with wife and eight kids in supporting roles -- has the feel of Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving dinner, but who spends at least 14 hours at the office and whose staff barely has time to date, get married or even phone home. It's about a born engineer, an expert on how fluids flow through pipelines, who has thrown himself into complex issues of education, health care, the environment, the federal budget, you name it, the detail man in charge of the big picture.

It's also the story of a man who says he's come to Washington only briefly. John Sununu is a temp. And if there is one point he wants to make, it is that he is not putting down roots here. At this writing, some of those flattened by the Sununu steamroller have begun to speculate -- not for the record, of course -- that he could soon be history. Other insiders suggest this is wishful thinking. They point to George Bush's impulse toward loyalty and to Barbara Bush's affection for the chief of staff.

"I've gotten used to this," Sununu says. "I really don't have any problem about how long I stay in this job. I don't worry about it. So I've never been very careful to package what I do very well." 'HE DOESN'T REALLY NEED HIS FRIENDS'

I have come to see John Sununu at a bad time. The midterm elections are approaching fast, and beyond the whispering silence of the White House, angry Republicans want his head. He has helped provoke divisions within the party that will have to be healed after the vote. He has been thundering through the staff, through Congress -- the mighty Mensa-man with the quick and biting wit, opening wounds, sowing terror and, for the moment, reaping obedience from most of the party faithful. It has become very clear, in case anybody missed it before, that this is George Bush's enforcer -- one in a succession of political Rottweilers (Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes spring immediately to mind) that Kinder-Gentler George uses to do his snarling for him.

The Enforcer doesn't make an appearance during the time I spend with Sununu, of course. For me, he is doing the Full Teddy Bear. He is the man his supporters talk about, his high school buddies talk about, not only charming but self-deprecating -- something even admirers didn't think he'd added to his public repertoire. His voice is so soft, I can barely hear him. I have to lean forward to listen, and wonder, is this a character invented for people like me? More importantly, will the tape recorder catch it all?

There is another possible explanation. By now, Sununu probably sees the press as a natural enemy. And one of the oddest facets of his political style is this: He is nicer to his enemies than to his friends.

People with long Washington re'sume's know that you need to build a constituency to survive here, a hard core of friends who will support you when you've been hit by one too many headlines. Sununu has not done that. Asked for a list of people to talk to about him, his associates suggest mostly 1) people who work for him or whose jobs depend on him and 2) Democrats. In the bad times, the former can't do anything but say they're sorry -- and the latter won't even bother to do that.

"He and I ended up respecting each other, knowing who we were and where we stood," says former House Democratic whip Tony Coelho, one of the recommended interviewees. "We argued, we were tough with each other, but we've maintained a relationship, and I still talk to him on a regular basis . . . If you didn't have Sununu there, some people in the Cabinet would be running around doing their own thing. You need to have a tough guy who makes things work. A president like George Bush needs a John Sununu."

"John Sununu has a big-league mind," says another on the list, New Hampshire Democratic state chairman Ned Helms. "He may not have big-league patience. He may not have big-league political judgment. But he's got a big-league mind."

But when you ask Republicans about Sununu these days, the first thing they do is take a deep breath.

Some are more generous than others. Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, who disagreed with Sununu and Bush on the budget, nevertheless says he admires Sununu's intelligence "and I also simply like him."

Hyde acknowledges, however, that a number of his colleagues are furious about the chief of staff's iron-fisted methods. He shrugs. "From my observation, he seems to lack the ability to schmooze with people or to gloss over their flaws." Then Hyde throws in the cliche that follows Sununu everywhere: "He does not suffer fools lightly."

Rep. John R. Kasich, a young Republican from Ohio, says many of his colleagues think Sununu has one basic problem: He behaves like a governor, even after almost two years on the job. "If you're trying to change something as governor, you call guys into a room and punch them around a little until you get them to agree with you," Kasich says. "Well, we're not like that."

Sununu's friends say he doesn't stay mad, so he wonders why other people do. And Sununu himself seems anxious to play down his abrasiveness.

"A lot of folks in this town, if you start to argue the different advantages or disadvantages, they get highly agitated that you would question the conclusion they have drawn," he says. "And as you urge them to discuss what might be changed on a bill, well, it can get very difficult at times.

"As I try to press the president's agenda harder and harder, sometimes I take it to the edge. People overreact sometimes too."

It is also clear that Sununu, the mathematics whiz, sees his record in percentages -- an unusual attitude in Washington, where failure often comes with one public mishap. "I probably get involved in say 100, 200 interactions a day," he says. "If I only bat 90 percent, 95 percent from doing it absolutely perfectly, then I've got 5 or 10 that have not been done perfectly. It's a tough situation, but that's my job."

With a calculator, we can frame the question: Does this mean that over a year, Sununu has been involved in 3,650 to 7,300 "interactions" that have been, let us say, unpleasant? Or, in two years, 7,300 to 14,600? Small wonder the chief of staff has left his mark on the nation's power village.

Sununu left a trail of irritation in his home state as well. And there again, it's Republicans who seem the most irritated.

Most recently, Sununu infuriated state party leaders by supporting a congressional candidate in the Republican primary -- a move seen as high-handed White House interference and just plain bad form. Supporters of Gov. Judd Gregg, Sununu's Republican successor, also say that Sununu -- who turned a $44 million budget deficit into a $32 million surplus when he took over as governor -- nevertheless handed them a $14 million deficit when he left (a big chunk out of a state budget of $1.4 billion). Gregg's father, Hugh Gregg, a friend of George Bush and a former governor himself, is quick to display the bitterness that seems just under the surface for a number of New Hampshire Republicans. "He simply didn't tell the truth about it," says the elder Gregg. "He said he left a surplus and he left a deficit."

Such talk infuriates the Sununu people, especially Stephen Kennedy, who was the Governor's chief financial officer in New Hampshire from 1983 to 1988.

"Absolutely in error," says Kennedy of the Greggs' accusation. "Just baloney." Kennedy says an independent audit in 1988 showed the state ending its year with extra funds, though he warned of tougher times as the slowdown in the Northeast moved into New Hampshire. The Greggs, he says, are simply "intimidated by John Sununu's intelligence and management style."

Another Sununu ally dismisses Hugh Gregg's pique by explaining that Republicans come in two varieties in New Hampshire -- old-liners like Gregg and techno-boom types like Sununu. But when told that in both New Hampshire and Wash- ington, members of his own party seemed to be the ones complaining loudest about Sununu, he says: "I'm not surprised. He always treats his political enemies better than his politi- cal friends. He can be very charming to his enemies. That's because he doesn't really need his friends. They'll have to support him, he figures, but the enemies, no."

Isn't that a dangerous game? Doesn't that mean that his "friends" will evaporate the day he becomes Citizen Sununu?

"He doesn't have many friends," says this man, who counts himself among the few, "because he's like a machine. When the machine needs to be charming, it's charming. When the machine doesn't need to be charming -- and that is about 80 percent of the time -- it isn't." THE EXPERT ON EVERYTHING

It's a week before Election Day and Sununu is sitting in a small studio in downtown Washington where television news anchors from around the country can interview the nation's big shots by satellite. The studio is dark and airless. There's an uncomfortable-looking chair for the subject, a blue curtain back- drop, a camera that hovers nose to nose with a John Sununu, who is, at this moment, the picture of agreeable good humor.

He is a block of a man whose suit seems unprepared for the rigors of television interviewing. It rides up behind him as he talks, defending himself and his president. After a few interviews, the navy blue jacket starts squaring off shoulders that are already square enough to start with. His aide, Ed Rogers, suddenly bursts in from the control room and seems to intuit my unspoken description of his boss.

"You're too square, Governor," he says.

Sununu looks up, eyes squinting slightly, trying to figure out whether the comment is being made about his rhetoric, his demeanor or his figure.

"You need to sit on your coat," Rogers says.

The face that lights up is slightly bulbous, bottom-heavy after too many meals at his desk. The laugh is deep, Santa-like, and he duti- fully pulls down his jacket for the cameras.

Watching Sununu talk into the lens, what is most surprising are his hands. They are long and thin, delicate-looking, like those of a pianist or an eye surgeon. There are times, when he uses them to make a point, that they seem oddly detached from the short, round man controlling them.

Any softness or delicacy is quickly hardened by the eyes, however. They are quick, darting around his small dark cage, catching the details of every movement, making certain the large signs give him the names of the anchors -- Gene and Brenda, Wilma and Roy, Kathy and Ray -- so he can greet them personally. Each interviewer asks the same questions, and Sununu says he has to concentrate to remember the daily mantra: The president doesn't want war, but he's ready. The Democrats wanted taxes. We wanted the deficit cut. The words are always the same.

Meanwhile, I am interviewing him in counterpoint. During a break, he starts talking about his days as governor of New Hampshire, which he does often, mostly rapturously. He's saying how proud he is of what he did for the university system. In mid-sentence, a voice in his earphone interrupts.

Another interview: Raleigh, N.C. It lasts seven minutes. Then WJLA-TV in Washington, almost 10 minutes. Then, at the next break, Sununu not only picks up his thought about the university system in New Hampshire, he actually completes the sentence. It's like an intellectual pirouette, perfectly executed, and when I laugh, he gets a tiny, mischievous smile on his face, like a kid whose card trick has just worked on an adult. Every friend, every foe starts a conversation about John Sununu with a bow to the man's intelligence. The number is 180. That makes him 1 in 3 million, and it's clearly his main asset -- as well as his primary flaw.

After two years watching him, Washington knows he's smart -- "detail smart," as it's called sometimes. The question is whether he is wise. As one administration source who is close to George Bush puts it: "The frightening thing is that he doesn't know what he doesn't know, and he's impulsive. Those two things together add up to a serious vulnerability for the president."

I ask Sununu about his IQ, which became nationally known after he took a mail-in IQ test for Omni magazine five years ago. He's ready for the question. "Dumbest thing I ever did," he says. "I should never have taken the test. I had no idea they were going to publicize the results, and I regretted it from the word go."

"It's harmed us a lot," interjects Rogers.

"It means nothing. It means I can take a test, that's all," Sununu says.

But Sununu can't help sending signals that he's smart. In fact, he can use brains and expertise as clubs to intimidate the opposition.

New Hampshire State Sen. Susan McLane, a liberal Republican, recalls her first meeting with the then-governor of her state. "I walked in the door and sat down and he said, 'Now, let's get this straight. You don't know anything about this. Now let's talk.' "

It was not a great way to start a working relationship, and it did not get better over time. "The way he argues is this," McLane says. "One, you don't know what you're talking about, and two, he's putting you down -- you haven't read this, you haven't seen that. It's always some obscure bit of information that he deems central to the issue."

Congressional budget negotiators -- who spent weeks with Sununu, budget director Richard Darman and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady this fall -- describe something of the same method. One key negotiator put it this way: "His modus operandi is total intimidation. He slouches in, plops himself down and glares. When it's time to be serious, he doesn't straighten up. He's still doing this same thing."

"Sununu felt free to interrupt people, to correct them in mid-sentence, not to let them finish their thoughts," this source says. "The whole attitude was much like father to child, as in, 'It's because I said so, that's why.' "

Privately, the negotiators from the Hill started using nicknames for the president's main man. There was "Governor So-Know-It-All," of course. There was Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole's little Freudian slip -- "the Chief of Chaff" -- which almost nobody would have noticed if Dole hadn't made a point of telling reporters he had misspoken when he said it. And there was the Democrats' favorite: "The No-Neck Monster."

Some participants thought Sununu was just being Sununu, a gladiator wearing his bully suit to battle. But Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) took it more personally. Late one night, after several weeks of watching Sununu's team in action, Byrd suddenly broke his silence. " 'I have had 30 years in the U.S. Senate, and I have participated in many such summits,' " one summiteer recalls Byrd saying, " 'and I have never in my life observed such outrageous conduct as that dis- played by the representatives of the president of the United States. Your conduct is arrogant. It is rude. It is intolerant.' "

At this point, people seemed to stop breathing to listen. "I know the president of the United States. I respect him, and I know that if he knew of your outrageous conduct in these meetings that he would not tolerate it," Byrd said.

According to several of those who heard the outburst, Sununu looked stunned, humiliated. Sununu, Darman and Brady asked for a break, and when they returned, the exchanges were more polite. At least for a while.

Within a few days, Sununu's authoritarian side reemerged. He resumed his stance as the one, the only, keeper of the keys who knew what the president would tolerate. Summiteers would caucus and slave over some proposal, keeping staff working into the night to get it into the right form to go to the session. "He would glance at it, maybe for 30 seconds, slam it down and just say, 'No,' " remembers one of those who watched a favorite idea hit Sununu's trash heap before most mortals could have read its title.

Defending his boss on this point, Ed Rogers describes a scene in which Brady asked Sununu to "familiarize yourself with the language" in a letter going to the Hill. "Sununu sort of looked at it a minute and then handed it back," Rogers says. "Then {Brady} said, 'No, no, you really need to look at this.' And the Governor said, 'I read it,' and he quoted it back almost word for word.

"Brady just said, 'I forgot you could do that,' " Rogers recalls.

Sununu's critics say he still doesn't understand that Washington isn't New Hampshire. That he can't, as he did there, link up the whole bureaucracy to his personal computer and watch, line by line, as the budget is spent. That he can't, as he did there, try to know everything.

His supporters say this is a misunder- standing of the Governor's technique. It is a kind of trick, this Father Knows Best role he assumes in every negotiating session.

Rogers again: "You go in to see him and say, 'Governor, I think we should do this,' and he immediately says, 'No, we should do that.' If you back down then, you lose. But if you make your point -- and you better know what you're talking about -- he will listen to it.

"He always takes the contrary point of view. If you don't challenge him on that, he'll think you're dumb. If you don't challenge him, you just get pushed aside, rolled over, you're gone."

It's a tough way to do business; yes, it works sometimes, but not everyone responds well to that kind of pressure. And just because people obey or remain silent, it doesn't mean they've been convinced or converted.

"The reason he's driven people up here crazy -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- is that he thinks he's an expert on everything," says one congressional leader. "Sununu is a man, in the end, constitutionally incapable of keeping an opinion to himself."

It may be worth noting that one of the last people who tried to know everything in Washington was Jimmy Carter. 'I THINK I SUCCEED IN HAVING CONTROL OF MY EMOTIONS'

Sununu's intensity was already in evidence at La Salle Military Academy, the boarding school he attended on eastern Long Island. Not surprisingly, at least in hindsight, he was the guy the teachers chose as cadet lieutenant colonel -- the one commissioned to keep his fellows in line, get them to breakfast at daybreak, make certain they obeyed the academy's many arcane rules.

Classmates remember him as uncommonly smart, witty and ambitious. "He was a real competitor, and everybody used to think it was a big joke, but everything he did, he did it to win," says John Sullivan, now a vice president of Merrill Lynch in New York City.

Sullivan fondly recalls playing basketball one day and ending up in a jump ball with Sununu -- a point at which the referee throws the ball up between two players and each tries to tap it to a teammate. "John's about 5-8 -- maybe," says Sullivan, who is 6-2. "I was just looking around for somebody to tap it to, but when the referee threw the ball up, I went exactly nowhere. John was standing on both my feet.

"I said to him, 'You'll get away with that once, but you'll never get away with it again.'

"And he said, 'Geez, I'm sorry if your big feet got in the way.' "

The story is instructive: Young Johnny Sununu got the job done, the best way he knew how. What may have changed in the last 30 years is how people react to such methods. In Washington, getting the job done is an admirable thing -- as long as yours aren't the toes being flattened in the process.

Chief of Protocol Joseph Reed -- whose administration role is just about the exact opposite of Sununu's -- points out that the Governor "wasn't hired by President Bush to run Camelot. He was asked to take charge of a large, complex operation. And in order to do that, you've got to have the strength and energy to smack a few chops and whack a few behinds. His job is to get things done, and if there is a little blood on the floor, well, this is the big leagues."

For a man with a legendary temper, Sununu has a surprisingly loyal and dedicated staff. His deputy, Andy Card, puts it this way: "He's demanding, and he is fun . . . I learn every day from John Sununu. Sure it's bruising, but it's constructive."

Sununu's staffs are sometimes described as "weak" or simply "unthreatening" by those who have known him over the years. His White House team is made up mostly of young, energetic people who are on call like medical residents. Phones ring and beepers vibrate night and day. Staffers come to attention from deep sleep to talk about a line in the budget, an idea Sununu wants followed up the next morning.

"He has half-raised them," says Mary Matalin, chief of staff for the Republican National Committee. "He treats them like family." Staffers may shiver when Sununu's thunder heads in their direction, but after the stormy moments he can turn gentle, recognizing when the strain has become too much. He will call and express concern, offer advice, even bring over a pizza.

Bringing a pizza to Rep. Lindsay Thomas, however, probably wouldn't help.

A conservative and conciliatory Georgia Democrat, Thomas was the victim of a classic Sununu tirade. On the morning of July 31, he went to the White House as part of a bipartisan group concerned about problems with federal regulation of wetlands. It should have been a fairly routine session. The Georgian had been asked by his colleagues to make the presentation, and he was showing the group of about 20 to 25 people a book of selected photos of dry-looking areas that had been deemed untouchable as wetlands. Suddenly, Sununu burst into the room, walked over to Thomas and shut the book.

"I was just trying to explain the problems with wetlands," Thomas sputtered as he tried to open the book again.

This time Sununu slammed it shut, almost catching the congressman's hand. "I don't care what you're saying. I'm not interested in anything you have to say," the chief of staff bellowed.

The roomful of people heard Sununu "ranting and raving," as one put it, about Thomas and the wetlands issue, and they saw a flustered Thomas offer to step down as the presenter for this issue and talk about "any personal problems the Governor has with me" at a later time. No dice. The chief of staff was in full flight, and when he was finished, he seemed to disappear as quickly as he had arrived.

After a brief, leaden silence, the group erupted with complaints about the treatment of a colleague.

"I went over there in a nonconfronta- tional, bipartisan spirit on a serious issue," Thomas said recently when asked about the incident. "I didn't know John Sununu from Adam's house cat. Then he acted like such a playground bully that the appropriate response would have been for me to punch his lights out, but that would have been the end of a meeting that was very important to my constituents."

Asked about his confrontational style in general, Sununu says, "I try very hard and I think I succeed in having control of my emotions. And so this idea that I'm pressed beyond what I want to do is not correct. So every time I press someone, I'm pressing them because it's important . . . It's important that people know that the White House is very serious about what it wants to get done."

Asked about the Lindsay Thomas incident in particular, Ed Rogers explains it by saying that Sununu's office had been getting calls about how the congressman was boasting in Georgia that he was going to "go to the White House and really straighten them out, tell them a thing or two." That, says Rogers, "set the tone for this meeting." Thomas denies that he made such boasts. 'THERE'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ME AND LYNDON JOHNSON'

At one point in my interview with Sununu, I bring up an article in the November issue of Playboy. The article, which bears the headline "Big Bad John," documents a number of Sununu outbursts -- notably a phone call to U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Dick Lesher in which Sununu threatened to take a chain saw to Lesher's manhood. (Sununu disputes the language attributed to him but not the substance of the story.) It calls him "the most powerful Chief of Staff since H.R. Haldeman . . . perhaps the most powerful Chief of Staff ever." It also quotes an anonymous White House official as calling him "exactly the kind of guy George Bush likes working for him. A guy who does the dirty work."

Asked about this, Sununu glances at Rogers for a second as if his aide has failed to brief him on this tidbit. "Where was that?" he asks. In the Playboy article, he is told.

"I skimmed it," he says. If he is angry about this, he doesn't show it except for a tiny squinting of the eyes. Then he switches back to what his wife calls "nicey-nice," the normal public demeanor of people in Washington.

A guy who does the dirty work. He mulls the question. "That sounds like you're doing something behind the scenes," he says with a tiny smile. "I never do anything behind the scenes. When I have to do something, I generally go out of my way to make it very clean and visible and straightforward."

"Clean and visible and straightfor- ward" -- what an odd concept in this, the international capital of self-serving leaks and political back-stabbing. It sounds almost as though he's deliberately contrasting his style to that of one notable predecessor. During the Reagan years, Chief of Staff James Baker seemed particularly adept at distancing himself from failures or painful decisions while claiming credit for administration successes. Indeed, one close Bush adviser has suggested that Sununu was chosen precisely for his un-Baker-like qualities.

Even the Governor, however, would probably admit the obvious: Jim Baker will be here long after John Sununu is gone.

Lightning rods, even those who enjoy the role, eventually receive the bolt that sends them back to obscurity. Remember James Watt. Ollie North. Don Regan. They take so much heat that they evaporate.

Sununu seems to acknowledge as much in the course of a long, digressive answer to a question about Lyndon Johnson.

Several of his associates, I tell him, have compared him to LBJ -- meaning that the two used similar strong-arm methods to get things done. Sununu thinks for a minute. He seems accustomed to questions about politics or facts; this one is neither.

"Let me play with this," he begins. "I haven't thought about this. First of all, if I had my druthers, I'd go back to engineering right away."

I suggest that I have trouble believing this.

"I know it, but that's what you have to understand," he continues. "I loved my profession. I did it well. I loved doing it. I loved the consulting business. I used to do what I called crisis consulting. My clients had problems they'd worked on a long time and couldn't solve and I loved doing it."

He has made so much of this point now that one is left wondering why he left engineering at all. Then he goes on, still circling the LBJ question.

"But I also enjoy trying to bring a very different viewpoint to public service. I really think the system is important enough that I want to give something back to it."

He starts talking about New Hampshire, as he often does to make a point. Politics is real there, he says, nose to nose, direct. Not like Washington, he is implying, the place he came to only because the president needed him. Gone, for the moment, is the John Sununu of 1988, who wanted to be vice president, who seized the Bush campaign's hour of need as his ticket to national power.

"If the president said tomorrow, 'We've got a slightly different track to go on and we want somebody else to do the job,' I wouldn't feel uncomfortable about going back to engineering," Sununu says. Bush, he adds quickly, "has been kind enough to say he wants me to stay and that he's happy with the way things are going . . . I can't imagine doing this for anybody else . . . I did it only because he asked.

"I'm here to do something. I'm impatient. I want to get something done. I feel I have something to offer. But if people don't want me to do it, I'll move on."

I am staring at him. Ed Rogers is staring at him. None of this seems to have much to do with Lyndon Johnson. At long last, unprompted, he finally makes the connection.

"There's the difference between me and Lyndon Johnson -- who loved being where he was," Sununu says. "But, in terms of the intensity of this, we're probably the same."

He stops, takes a big breath and then laughs. "Why do I have the feeling I am talking to a shrink?"

No training is necessary to interpret this, of course. Lyndon Johnson was a Washingtonian, and John Sununu isn't, he is saying. If he is driven out of town, he won't be homeless, he is saying. You can't excommunicate an outsider, he is saying.

For a man like Sununu, who seems to revel in his role as White House hit man, this may be the only way to think about his job.

Eleanor Randolph writes for The Post's National staff. Her last story for the Magazine was a profile of CBS anchorman Dan Rather.