Peter Francis O'Malley says he wishes people thought of him as a Clark Clifford, the man who was Lyndon B. Johnson's Defense Secretary, the Lawyer-statesman who wields power without reproach, a respected and sought-after adviser.

They don't call Clark Clifford "Boss." "Whether I am a boss or not," said Peter O'Malley, of Prince George's County, "the fact that I am perceived as one has an effect. If the public perception continues to grow where I'm a force to oppose for opposition's sake, then it becomes troublesome. Personally and emotionally, it becomes troublesome . . ."

But Clark Clifford O'Malley is not. So here he was a man who has never himself sought elected public office, who wants to help sell his friend. State Senate President Steny Hoyer of District Heights, to the people of Maryland as their next governor, trying to sell himself to a room full of Washington Post editors and reporters.

He had come to the Sheraton-Lanham's Board Room, where elected county Democrats meet twice monthly to dole out patronage over orange juice and coffee, armed with five color-coded charts and several pages of typed notes. Sounding at times like a political science professor, at times like an advertising patchman. O'Malley held the floor for three hours.

It's natural for citizens to be wary, "perhaps fearful," O'Malley said, of "a political apparatus or a political boss or leader who is represented to them as a potential for evil."

If he is thus represented and perceived, O'Malley said, "my ability to become a positive force becomes limited because your motives are then questioned at every turn . . . I can't achieve my goals and I can't achieve what I want for me and for the community if I function in an aura of suspicion . . . It's sort of a bionic being that the media has created . . . who is now a windmill to tilt with . . .

"I don't want to be (perceived) as a sinister force," O'Malley said. "And if I can't overcome that, then I have to get out of the business of politics."

All of this was preface. O'Malley, ready for the main presentation, positioned his five color-coded charts on a display rack at one end of the room.

O'Malley launched into a political history of the county Democrats in eight colors, from two factions (black and green) in 1962 to three in 1970 to O'Malley's almost unopposed "Blue Ribbon" Democratic ticket in 1974.

The last chart was a kaleidoscope of brown, green, pink, purple, red, black, blue, yellow. The only name missing was O'Malley's.

O'Malley's first foray into Maryland politics came in 1962, when he campaigned on behalf of State House Speaker Perry Wilkinson Sr., then seeking the state's at-large congressional seat. Wilkinson lost, but by displaying his organizational skills, O'Malley won.

"I was industrious and fair game to the victors," O'Malley recalled to another setting. "I become known to the local political folks."

Among them: Jesse St. Claire Baggett, a county commissioner who, in turn, introduced O'Malley to zoning lawyer William H. Kahler. O'Malley, still in law school, became general manager of Baggett's bank and then joined Kahler's law firm.

By the late 1960s, Baggett and Kahler were caught up in a zoning scandal with developer Ralph D. Rocks. There were allegations of bribes for favorable governmental actions that, critics said, were allowing helter-skelter development beyond the county's ability to absorb people and provide services.

Eventually, all three were convicted. O'Malley and another junior lawyer, Russell W. Shipler, emerged unseathed. To this day, O'Malley said, he believes his two mentors were innocent. "They behave with perfect propriety and were good solid citizens," he said.

The zoning scandals prompted a movement to reform county government with a new charter strictly controlling development. O'Malley was the lone victor on a Baggett-backed state for the charter-witing board, where he strongly opposed including such controls in the document. It was a legalistic, minority view later upheld by the courts.

Meanwhile, O'Malley was playing an active nuts and bolts role in county politics. In 1966 he helped elect Hoyer to the State Sennaae while also actively campaigning for Attorney General Thomas Finan for governor.

O'Malley was deeply, personally committed to the late Finan, who gave him his first job out of law school enforcing Maryland's old subversive activities act. O'Malley said he never prosecuted anyone under it, that it was used merely as a "governmental budget device to fund another lawyer."

Finan, O'Malley's candidate, lost, as did O'Malley-backed candidates Wilkinson in 1962, Louis Goldstein for senator in 1964 and Hoyer for county executive in 1971.

Somehow O'Malley managed to emerge from these defeats unharmed and seemingly stronger than before. While Finan was losing, O'Malley got himself elected that year president of the county Young Democrats (while Hoyer became head of the statewide group). A year later, O'Malley narrowly missed becoming state party chairman because, one powerful politician reportedly remarked then. "That kid's too damn young, and ambitious for this job."

O'Malley said he and Hoyer in those days were both "activist, opportunistic, ambitious . . . probably unable to state a political philosophy, probably unable to state personal or over-all goals . . .

"I was a dilettante," he confessed. "I was enjoying it, and it was pleasant and I liked the competition. It had replaced competitive athletics . . ."

Gradually, however, the two leaders of the so-called "Diaper Dems" of Prince George's County grew more "issue-oriented," pressing for mass transit and regional government.

But internecine politics, he decided was impeding progress. In his nonideological view, the intraparty bickering was causing frequent government dysfunction and occasional Republican victories.

O'Malley said he set his sights on "improving the climate in which public officials run, particularly their relationship with each other."

Describing his leadership role in this effort, O'Malley alternated between acknowledging and downplaying it. At one point, he was an "architect," at others merely "the man who got the cokes there on time" and "the person who manned the switchboard."

In the presentation, despite O'Malley's repeated references to the good government ethic, initing various ideological and geographical factions and interests for the goal of party peace loomed paramount. An inevitable result would be winning elections.

In the unity effort, "insurgent" and "old guard" personalities seemed to merge and blur with the changing winds of political expediency.

In 1970, O'Malley was one of five figures who met to "coalesce the legitimate interests and factions," as he put it. Despite the effort three states formed. The O'Malley-backed "Alliance for Action" state won most of the seats that year.

Four years later the victory of the party organization was virtually complete in both the primary and general elections.

That year the Democrats drafted their platforms first, then picked the candidates. O'Malley wanted them selected by countryside convention or by the party central committee. Both were ruled out, however, because of concern that he, Hoyer and Tom Farington, an O'Malley law partner, would dominate the progress.

Instead, a 15-member "Blue Ribbon" committee was created by the central committee to form the state.

"It's been described as an effort to control, but it was an extremely healthy exercise in politics," O'Malley insisted.

Since the 1974 sweep, O'Malley who seems to have better luck backing slates than backing candidates - has been widely perceived as the Prince George's political potentate, anointing people or judgeships and other positons. "You must not have the emnity of Mr. O'Malley," said District Court Judge Vincent J. Femia with proper deference.

Yet, despite O'Malley's backing for a seat on the higher Circuit Court. Femia failed to win the necessary rating last fall from the five-county judical nominating commission. The incident raised questions about the extent of O'Malley's clout.

O'Malley's failure to win state legislative support this year for a $35 million convention center plan, financially unviable without it, raised more questions. The overlapping of his political and business interests had not played well with the legislators. Further, the word around Annapolis was that the effort, by failing, had alo hurt Hoyer's gubernatorial chances.

It may be, as O'Malley and others say, a matter of perceptions. One perceived to be a boss is one. The very word of his support counts for something. And when a project or person fails with his backing, teh damage is that much greater.

"It's all done with mirrors," insists one skeptical county Democrat who questions O'Malley's power but, just in case, requests anoymity.

In the future reflection of those mirrors looms 1978, when all county offices will again be up for grabs. According to O'Malley it will be a rerun of the last eight-color chart. With only scatterd pockets of Democratic dissidents lacking support from a county wide organizations and all incumbents reportedly urged to "sit tight for Steny," it could harldy be otherwise.

"In relative terms," O'Malley said, "it's more closed today than it was then. My sense of what is likely to occur here is there will be very little movement . . ."

And then he said it: "If Steny were not running for governor, I probably don't see a role."

So 1978 could be his last hurrah. In the quiet Board Room of the Lanham hotel, what followed sounded very muck like an exit speech.

"My personal goal was not public office. It was an overwhelming curiosity to see if this thing could work . . . Now I think it's the responsible of those who have it to make it work if it's worthwhile . . . If it's right if it has any value, it should be self-perpetuating. If it doesn't have any value, then it should be destroyed . . ."

For years, politics had been such a natural part of his life, "so ordinary . . . The phone would ring and I would talk politics like other people's phones ring and they talk baseball . . ."

He is beginning to appreciate more, he said, "why the scrutiny, why the attention, why people have questions. And I appreciate more the danger of misuse, and that really bothers me . . . I know my values and I know my conscience, and I know that I'm not going to betray the system.

"But I also know you can reach a point in your life where perhaps things are occuring contrary to your wishes, and the only way you can change the flow is to withdraw . . . I've always had a motto: Men don't lose, they quit . . ."

O'Malley, at 38, seemed almost ready to do just that. I'm wondering he said, "Maybe people get burned out. Maybe you run out of credibility."

What's he's had going for him, he said, "is an awareness by the office-holder that I don't want his job, and an awareness by the officeholder that I'm credible. I don't want to destroy that, I would rather shift interests."

The hockey team (the Capitals), for one thing, has already "become far more fascinating that (politics) ever was." Besides, in politics, "you have to cajole somebody and reason and baby-sit and spend hours persuading somebody what's best for them. It becomes a source or frustration. At least in business, you say, 'I am responsible for this decision and that's what we'll do," and then you accept the consequences."

The presentation, which had turned into a very personal soliloquy, was over.

One of those present asked a question that seemed, to reveal lingering veal lingering doubts. O'Malley left doubts. O'Malley left the lunch feeling, he confessed, somewhat uneasy.

Not long after, the county grapevine carried a heavy rumor; Peter O'Malley, it was said, had decided to pull up stakes and move to Ann Arundel County. There, the rumor went, he would live the life of the sucessful lawyer-businessman and no longer play any role in Prince George's politics.

O'Malley had, he acknowledged, looked at some lots in the Harbor Hills section along the South River but had, he said," no present intent of moving anywhere."

However, he added, "I expect to go out there periodically and look . . . There is reason to see into the future where I would relocate."