IT IS LATE ON a drizzly Friday and most of Washington has gone home for the weekend. Clark Clifford is still at his desk. Before him are piled mounds of papers, kept manageable by heavy, brass paperweights. Out in his personal waiting room, two members of his legal team are marking time. He will go to midnight tonight, he says. He should have had a month for this. Instead, he's going to have a week. Bert Lance came later rather than sooner but the important thing is that he came. He almost had to.

And so once again it has come down to Clark Clifford. In the end this is who Bert Lance called when he got into more trouble than he's ever known. All the vows went out the window, all that Carter administration stuff about not going "Washington." Not for Lance.He picked up the phone and even though it was Sunday in Georgia, he called. Clark Clifford took the call. Clark Clifford said he would represent Lance. Clark McAdams Clifford put down the phone. He did not say if he smiled.

It had to happen. This is Washington and the town has its ways. Bert Lance is learning that now but there were things he did not know. He did not know, for instance, that one of his enemies is called August. August in Washington is murder - dead like a cemetery. Nothing happening. Bert Lance was happening. Every reporter in town was after Lance. There was nothing else - no Watergate, no Agnes, nothing but Korea and Lance August. Clark Clifford knows about August.

So now Bert Lance must face the Senate this week and Clifford will be with him. Clifford will do his number. He will write Lance's prepared remarks, of course, and he will whisper in his ear when the questioning start and he will do something more, and that, whatever that is, is where he will earn his money.He will advise and he will talk to people on the phone and he will find out things that other people can't find out. He will do his Washington number.

Don't look to me for the details. I have known someone like Clifford for years and I have almost no idea what the friend of mine does. He is a lawyer, but he practices no law - never goes to court, for instance. Some people call him an expediter. I call him when I want information. He seems to know things. Sometimes he seems to know everything. You'd have to say that knowing things is what he does for a living. Maybe it's the same way with Clifford.

I thought about this driving to work and I thought I would write something about Bert Lance and Clifford and how Clifford was inevitable - how he must have said something like "what took you so long" when Lance called. I read up. He goes back a long way - all the way to Truman. Close to Truman and then close to everyone else. Close to Johnson, of course and now back in the thick of it with Lance. But the biographies say nothing about how he is supposed to be smooth - smarty, yes, but smooth. A great persuader. A great negotiator. Almost a fictional character. There at the beginning of the cold war. The Marshall Plan. The CIA. Secretary of Defense under Johnson. Cyprus negotiator for Carter. Super-lawyer in-between. Smooth. I called for an interview. I could be smooth, too.

Now it was early evening and the shades in his office were drawn. He was at his desk. He was wearing the double-breasted suit he always wears, the thin tie, the collar pin. His shoes were proper and black; his suit gray. I sat down. I had questions in my pocket, some my own, others from colleagues. He started talking. He had not wanted to see me but I had pleaded. I was there, it became clear, to be talked out of writing anything. He wanted no publicity, he said. He wanted no story. This was sensitive case. He did not want his name in the papers. Surely, I could be reasoned with. There was a floor lamp on either side of him. The furniture was solid, wood. He smiled often. He continued to talk.

"It is one of those periods that come up now and again in Washington," he said."People are in disarray. People are suspicious." Lance, for instance, was not sure anymore who his friends or his enemies were. Washington can be that kind of town. It was only natural for Lance to turn to a Washington lawyer, someone who had been around.

"I just know that Mr. Lance telephoned me last Sunday afternoon from down in Georgia," he said. "I met him just one time before. He asked me to represent him. He thought the time had come when he needed a Washington lawyer." That was all he could say. Nothing to be gained from saying more. He was not seeking publicity. He would say no more.

Yes, I agreed. I had come to him. I would make that clear in what I wrote. Couldn't he talk a bit about the Lance thing? Wasn't he surprised when he got the call? He looked to the ceiling. He would not talk. Surely, I understood. I said I did. I said I might write something anyway. He still looked at the ceiling. He had a proposition to make. He could talk to me after Lance testified. Better story then, he said. Think about that, he urged. Much better story then.

I would think it over, I said. I would call and let him know. I called it a carrot. He smiled. He started talking again. I was a Columnist, he said, surely no fool. I would be around for a while. So would he. "You and I will do business again." I wondered - the stick? No, couldn't be. He was smiling. He continued to talk. He was on his feet. So was I. He led me to the door. We shook hands. I learned nothing. I thought. Nothing. The elevator arrived. Two lawyers got on at other floors, carrying briefcases with firm name on it. The questions were still in my pocket. I should check to see if I still had my watch, I thought. I laughed. I walked out of the building, thinking over Clifford's offer. Smooth. I went a block and realized something.

I had walked the wrong way.