ON NOV. 18, the White House announced it would nominate William Bennett as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, ending months of speculation, intrigue, false leads and controversy surrounding the post.

Two days later, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) reopened the speculation after receiving from a trusted friend a letter that cast doubt on Bennett's conservative credentials. Helms, saying he was "concerned," called the White House's congressional liaison, Max Friedersdorf, and asked him to find out if the letter was correct.

This development was notable because Helms himself had written a letter of endorsement for Bennett. Even more notable: Helms had also signed a letter of support for Bennett's chief rival, Melvin Bradford.

The process by which one senator can find himself supporting two opposing candidates points up the intense political jockeying that attends just about any federal appointment. Details of the maneuvers that led -- finally -- to an NEH nominee were gathered from interviews with 24 persons, from the White House to the academic community to Capitol Hill. Because of continuing controversy, many of the interviewees asked not to be identified.

In the end, this battle came down to a choice between conservative and more conservative. One group supported William Bennett -- a Reagan follower but a registered Democrat, a scholar who earned Ivy League credentials at Harvard Law School and a PhD from the University of Texas. The other group supported Melvin Bradford -- a Faulkner scholar who earned a reputation as a critic of Abraham Lincoln, a supporter of George Wallace in the 1972 presidential primary and a Reagan supporter in 1980.

Neoconservative Irving Kristol, commenting on the process, called it "the perils of Pauline." In the case of the NEH, the agency concerned had a budget of $152 million and is little known outside of academia.

Nonetheless, to those scholars, researchers, professors, and filmmakers who apply for NEH grants, the agency provides a prestigious seal of approval as well as a subsidy. It can establish a reputation and spell success in fund-raising. And although its grants are the purview of review panels, the chairman of the NEH must give final approval.See ENDOWMENT, L5, Col. 1 ENDOWMENT, From L1

No one knows better the influence the job carries than Joseph Duffey, departing NEH chairman. He remembers President Carter calling him into his office four years ago. Carter had set up a selection panel to pick a new chairman, but the members were unable to agree. Finally, Carter asked Duffey to take the job. "I'm spending more time on this than I am on SALT," Carter sighed to Duffey.

Contender No. 1

FROM THE beginning, Bradford and Bennett were on people's minds.

"Bennett was one of the first names I heard after the election," said Duffey.

Irving Kristol became Bennett's advocate. He talked him up to scholars and suggested ways they could help get him nominated. Others who supported Bennett were Michael Joyce of the Olin Foundation and former treasury secretary William Simon.

Bennett, 38 and director of the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle, N.C., would be the choice of the neoconservatives. He sat on the board of the Institute for Educational Affairs, founded by Simon and Kristol. He had also worked on the Heritage Foundation's critical report on the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. And he had written a book with Terry Eastland that was critical of affirmative action.

Around December of last year, E. Pendleton James, White House chief of personnel, wrote Bennett a letter telling him that his name had been suggested and requesting a resume.

Bennett, who didn't mind the idea, paid a call on his local senator, Jesse Helms, months later. "I spent 20 minutes with him in Raleigh," said Helms. "He was very articulate, an attractive young man." Helms wrote a letter endorsing Bennett, which later put the senator in an awkward position.

Said Bennett, "I wasn't really campaigning for it. I was sitting back watching with interest."

So were a lot of people.

The Southern Axis

MEANWHILE, John East arrived in Washington as a freshman Republican M senator from North Carolina. He was a conservative political philosophy professor, and high on his list of priorities was changing the National Endowment for the Humanities.

At about the same time, old-line conservatives around the country were talking about backing Melvin Bradford for the chairmanship of the NEH. Bradford, 47, an English professor at the University of Dallas, sat on the board of the conservative journal Modern Age. So did East.

"They sort of found each other," said Jim McClellan, a political scientist and a lawyer who now works for East.

The basis of this meeting of the minds was not just similar politics but also a similar intellectual tradition. The two men valued the Southern agrarian life style -- the prizing of rural ways, family values, "gentlemanly manners," as McClellan put it. "Men opening doors for ladies," said McClellan. "Bradford is the typical example. He tips his hat to ladies." These Southerners, McClellan noted, might keep miniature Confederate flags on their file cabinets and in their pockets. "Not because we thought we should have won the war or because we're proslavery," McClellan said. "It has nothing to do with the race issue at all. It's part of a long-standing cultural defense of Southern values."

Many Southerners feel they are excluded from the prestigious intellectual institutions of the country by what they regard as the ruling liberal academic elite who populate Ivy League universities.

"Any political scientist or professor of English literature who's Republican or conservative is not welcome at any of the major universities," said McClellan. "We've also come out on the short end of the stick on grants. We don't get Rockefeller, Ford, National Endowment for the Humanities grants. We don't get much of anything."

East was interested in seeing some of those scholars get grants for a change. "They don't want to load it [the NEH] with conservatives," McClellan said. "They sincerely believe it should be neutral."

Bradford, the man who proudly told reporters in Washington this fall that there hadn't been a liberal in his family for the last 100 years, advised the Reagan transition team on NEH. He had written a memo on changes he felt necessary.

In February, East wrote a letter to President Reagan urging that Bradford be nominated for the chairmanship of the NEH. He also talked to his Republican friends on the floor of the Senate about Bradford.

In addition, more than 100 scholars wrote letters to the White House, Bradford estimates. Some of the supporters: Russell Kirk, godfather of old-line conservatives and author of "The Conservative Mind;" Andrew Lytle; Jeffrey Hart; William F. Buckley, Jr. publisher of the National Review; and M. Stanton Evans, head of the American Conservative Union.

"At one point," said one Senate staffer, "it was thought that it was reaching saturation point. How many do you need? In the summer . . . it was thought that there was so much support for Bradford that the nomination was assured."

Halt!

THE WHITE House didn't join the fray until early summer. Frank Hodsoll, then an assistant to White House chief of staff James Baker, was working with the newly created Presidential Task Force on the Arts and the Humanities. As the task force wound down, Hodsoll asked the White House to consider him for the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts, a post he recently got.

At that time there were about 20 candidates for the NEH job. Hodsoll was asked for suggestions and compiled a short list of candidates -- one of several being made -- based on conversations with task force members and other academics. That list contained at least these two names: Robert Hollander, a professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, and William Schaefer, executive vice chancellor of UCLA. Schaefer was suggested by two respected members of the task force: Hanna Gray, president of the University of Chicago, and Robert Lumiansky, president of the American Council of Learned Societies.

But the suggestion of Schaefer caused a mild explosion in the conservative community.

The National Review ran a scathing editorial titled "Halt! Stop This Appointment!" Schaefer, the magazine claimed, was known for "caving in before all demands from the cultural Left. As the operating director of the MLA Modern Language Association he did nothing to check its progress toward becoming an ideological zoo . . . Schaefer is not a conservative, and he is not a prominent intellectual. He is not even a schematic liberal. At best, very best, he is a Vicar of Bray." To top it off, the National Review said he didn't even have a record of supporting the Republican Party.

Letters from detractors hit the White House immediately.

"A howl went up," said one White House staffer.

"Bill Schaefer never sought the job," said Duffey, a friend of his. "He didn't deserve the flak he caught just because he happened to be in the crossfire. It was like stepping into a barroom and being hit by a flying fist."

The Plot Thickens

ON SEPT. 20, The New York Times ran a front-page story saying that the leading contender for the chairmanship of the NEH was Melvin Bradford.

Surprised, E. Pendleton James and high-ranking aides denied the story. No decision had been made, they said.

No matter. Bradford was getting his first real national exposure and the reviews were mixed.

Worried scholars began calling the White House. Sen. Robert Stafford (R-Vt.), a moderate and a member of the committee voting on recommendation of any nominee, was appalled. He told Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the chairman of the full Committee on Labor and Human Resources, that he would never confirm Bradford.

But by that time, Bradford was having a field day. While Bradford denies that he actually "campaigned" for the post, he did talk to some people about it and he wrote thank-you letters to those who wrote to the White House on his behalf. And he called the White House regularly to check on his status.

"I'd hate to see what his phone bill must be," said one White House staffer.

"When the neoconservatives started opposing Bradford," said the staffer, "I started getting calls from obscure English professors from southern campuses saying, 'I want you to know that Professor Bradford is a fine man.' "

By early October, one White House staffer said, "Bennett was on the inside track. But it's a very dicey situation. There are going to be some noses out of joint if Bradford isn't picked."

"It obviously was to some degree" a clash of intellectual traditions, said Kristol of the Bradford-Bennett race. "But the lines between old-line conservatives and neoconservatives have blurred. Well, I thought they were blurring until this."

Around that time, Kristol, the neoconservative, and William Buckley, the old-line conservative, bumped into each other at a cocktail party in New York. They lamented over how unfortunate this imbroglio had become.

No Dessert

THE WHITE House scheduled a luncheon Oct. 14 to honor both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. At the luncheon, they would announce the nomination of Frank Hodsoll as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Hodsoll, saying it would be a good idea to announce them both at once, pushed the White House to make up its mind on the NEH chair.

White House aides appeared to favor Bennett.

"If we play it cool," said one White House staffer, "it'll all work out."

But it was not to be. Political bases would still have to be touched.

"It was a question of discussion and persuading of the senators and some others," said one observer. "It was a question of the strength of views of some people. It was a matter of senatorial courtesy -- seeing that the home-state senator doesn't have any objection."

So no announcement was made on Oct. 14. In the East Room, about 100 intellectuals, artists, patrons of the arts and foundation heads lunched on filet mignon and listened to President Reagan nominate Frank Hodsoll for the NEA chair. Not one official word was spoken about the NEH nomination. They weren't ready yet, was the reply from the White House.

Everyone knew why.

At one table, Irving Kristol, advocate of William Bennett, shook his head and said of the tenacious Bradford, "This man just won't stay dead."

Five days later, 16 Republican senators signed a letter of support for Bradford and sent it to President Reagan. Helms was one of them. (He explained later that although he felt awkward supporting two candidates, he had signed the Bradford letter because East recommended it. Helms says he pointed out his predicament to the White House.) The letter had been in circulation for a month as people tried to collect signatures for what one White House staffer called a "last-ditch effort."

Meeting the Press

WHILE THE White House touched its political bases, Melvin Bradford, in three-piece suit and cowboy hat, came to town to touch his. He gave a speech before the Free Congress Foundation and then walked into the hall in the Rayburn Building and held an impromptu press conference.

He had already worked the Hill once that day, going to offices to talk to Senate staffers and the senators themselves, if they would see him.

He was friendly and "folksy," as one admirer put it. But much of what he had to say was stinging denunciation of the NEH -- claiming grants had been made for political reasons and "to raise consciousness."

Bradford was confident of his chances. "There's no political mileage in appointing someone who has no political constituency," Bradford told the group of reporters. "Otherwise, they would have appointed Dr. Robert Hollander."

"Hollander didn't have anyone pushing for him," said one White House staffer of the Princeton professor. "Bennett and Bradford did have people pushing for them. And since it's not a position of the level of secretary of defense, where you say, 'My God, is he going to fire off missiles?,' political considerations come into play.' "

Human Events ("The National Conservative Weekly") ran a story on Oct. 31 that accused Duffey of "shoveling hundreds of thousands of dollars into the coffers of the Democratic left." The magazine called for Bradford to be nominated "since he, far more than the timid Bennett, has given every indication that he would reform the Endowment substantially, booting out the Duffey holdovers and think-alikes."

Maneuvers

IN LATE October, Sen. East's legislative assistant, Thomas Farr, asked someone on Sen. Orrin Hatch's staff to hold up the scheduling of the confirmation hearings on Frank Hodsoll for NEA.

Says one knowledgeable Senate staffer, "Tom Farr said that East wanted two things. One, he wasn't even certain that Hodsoll would be any better than Liv Biddle the outgoing Democratic chairman . And two, East wanted to investigate Hodsoll's role in blocking Bradford."

And they did want to draw attention to Bradford. "The purpose was not to defeat the nomination but to give a little more time to consider Bradford," said one East staffer. "He was just trying to catch everyone's attention by saying 'How about looking at Bradford? Here's a viable alternative.' "

The informal hold was released a few days later. "There was a lot of pressure on East, on Hatch," said a Senate staffer. "There was the feeling that the White House should be able to get its nominees through."

According to sources, the White House decided they would hold off announcing any NEH candidate until Hodsoll was completely through the confirmation process.

The End?

SOME TIME in November, East talked with President Reagan on the telephone. On the day the White House officially announced the nomination, East released a statement: "My own preference was for Dr. Bradford, who is well qualified for the post. However, the president has selected Dr. Bennett, who is an able man, and I intend to support his nomination . . . I have expressed to the president my concern that balance be restored to the endowment and that I wish to ensure that projects funded by the endowment are of the highest quality possible. The president assured me he shares this concern."

One last brainstorm by people outside the Hill was brought to the attention of East staffers. They thought Bradford and some other scholars to East's liking could be put on the National Council on the Humanities, the presidentially appointed advisory body to the NEH. The idea was presented to Sen. East, but eventually dropped.

Bennett now faces the last hurdle -- being confirmed by the Senate. That could be a big hurdle if Helms finds fault with Bennett. For now, Bennett is the nominee, making courtesy calls and awaiting the scheduling of his confirmation hearing.

"Anyway," said one East staffer, "it was an interesting fight."