Walter Edward Washington has been mayor of the District of Columbia for so long that few around him can imagine Washington as anything else.

Only a handful of very old friends call him "Walter." To most others, he is "the mayor." The round-the-clock police guard outside his LeDroit Park home seems as permanent as a lamp post. His black 1964 Chrysler, still a "late model" car when he took office in 1967, is slowly becoming a relic near the driveway outside his home.

Being mayor is a job that has consumed his every waking hour, friends say, and turned this short, heavy an affable man of 63 with the thinning, slicked-down wavy hair into a 24-hour-a-day public personality with little time of his own.

His life has become one of ground-breakings ribbon cuttings, diplomatic receptions and ceremonies; of early-morning calls and late-night rides home in DC-1 the city owned chauffeured black sedan. His constant chatter is about "components," "programatic thrusts" and "substantive change."

Seldom does he go to movies, an aide says. Rarely does he read a novel. His golf game has grown rusty. He goes less often to the Tenley Circle area home of his longtime friend and city planning director Ben W. Gilbert, to swim in the egg-shaped pool or relax in the canvas deck chairs.

After almost 11 years as mayor of the nation's capital, Walter Washington - the mayor and the man - has become stubbornly comfortable in his own world, one that has been the foundation for his style of government.

He refuses, after three weeks of indecision, to sit with Mrs. Washington in the living room of their home for a campaign profile interview. Unlike his opponents, Marion Barry and Sterling Tucker, he declined to make available to The Washington Post five years of income tax returns. Indeed, this very reticent public man insists, those parts of his world are his business. His and his alone.

His world was created in the subtly segregated mill town in Jamestown, N.Y., and was refined in the patrician parlors of LeDroit Park near Howard University, where he courted and later married Bennetta Bullock. It is a world that was tempered and disciplined by 25 years of government service as a black man in a white-dominated bureaucracy and made defensive by three years as a chief executive who has felt constantly under attack.

For Walter Washington, life is composed of relative values. Creating black role models as city department heads, for example, is often more important to him, friends say, than their administrative skills. Personal loyalty and long-standing relationships are paramount to him.

Yet it is a world and a way of doing things for which Walter Washington offers no real apologies and seems little intent on changing, as he asks Democratic voters in the Tuesday primary to nominate him for four more years as mayor of the District of Columbia.

"I'm human. I make mistakes," he has frequently offered during the campaign.

But when asked recently to recall some of those errors, he politely declined. "I haven't tried to delineate I probably could," he said. "I just couldn't tell you off the top of my head."

By now, the story of Walter Washington's roots has become familiar local folklore in some parts of the city. He was born April 15, 1915, in Dawson, Ga., the son of Willie and Willie Mae Washington, but the family quickly moved to Jamestown, a western New York manufacturing city about a one-hour drive south of Buffalo.

His mother died when he was 6, and Washington was raised by his father, a laborer with the help of several neighborhood families. He saved his money so he could go to college. In 1934, he took a train to the nation's capital to begin studies at Howard University. He had made his home here since.

Politically, however, Walter Washington was probably born at 408 T St. NW, in the huge, white Victorian house owned by his father-in-law, the late Rev George O. Bullock, pastor of the influential Third Baptist Church. The mayor and his wife still live there with two of her brothers.

The Bullocks, who came here from North Carolina, were considered among the FFWs - First Families of (black) Washington. And when Walter married Bennetta Bullock on the day after Christmas in 1941, he also married some of the patrician attitudes of this upper crust of Washington's secret city of 30 years ago, friends say.

"The notion was," said one who was a child at the time the Washingtons were married, "that you stood head and shoulders above other Negroes, not so much because of color, but because of education and a certain sense of extravagance."

"You didn't put the gold knob on the door. Brass was okay, especially if the difference meant money to send your kids to (Sidwell) Friends (School) or to buy a house on Highland Beach. You proved your worth by your standards rather than by your pocketbook."

Bullock, many say, gave Walter Washington the grounding with the city's Baptist-dominated black church leadership that has become an indispensable part of the mayor's political base.

Washington came here a Methodist. But after his graduation from Howard University Law School, he served for years as an unofficial, pro bono legal adviser to many of the churches affiliated with the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Missionary Convention, of which Bullock once was president.

The relationship built friendships and IOUs, and also, many believed exposed the New York-reared Washington to the Southern Baptist mannerisms and oratory that are part of his political style.

As a result, Walter Washington can now claim friendships of more than two decades' duration with many of the city's church leaders. When he met some, they were pastors of store front chapels. Now many have large brick sanctuaries and even housing projects named after them, built with the assistance of a city government headed by Walter Washington.

In 1941, when Walter Washington began work as a trainee for the Alley Dwelling Authority that later became the National Capital Housing Authority, the few blacks lucky enough to hold jobs in city government were concentrated on the lowest end of the pay and prestige scales.

Black children peeped through fences to watch white youngsters playing in the Rosedale "public" swimming pool. Schools such as "Shameful Shaw" Junior High - a turn-of-the-century, city certified firetrap not replaced until 1977 - were commonplace in the nation's segregated capital city. A black could not drink coffee at the lunch counter of the Peoples Drug Store at 14th and U streets NW.

Washington trumpets as his proudest achievement since he became mayor the movement of blacks to the top of various city departments. He worked his own way to the directorship of NCHA, the city's public housing landlord, in 20 years.

He also boasts that under his leadership the last vestiges of second class citizenship have been wiped out through a multimillion dollar building program that has replaced many of the old separate but unequal institutions.

"He believes in the ability of black people to do things. Maybe it's Howard University. Maybe it's his background. Maybe it's his upbringing in the city," said James L. Hudson, a lawyer who is one of the mayor's strongest supporters and political associates.

"The D.C. government pre-Walter Washington was a white plantation government. Every department head was white. A black man couldn't even get to the fifth floor of the District Building. Walter Washington eliminated all that," Hudson said. Now more than half the heads of major city departments are black.

As the appointed mayor-commissioner for seven years, Washington enjoyed an ironic political honeymoon in office. Most of the time he served at the behest of the conservative Republican administration of former President Richard M. Nixon and had also to answer to congressional committees dominated by Southern segregationists.

Time and again, observers say, Washington was personally humiliated. But at a time when whites were still leery of black prominence in local government, he survived, spending much of his time at ceremonial occasions. Even his opponents acknowledge that his cautious, low-key, stiff-upper-lip performance helped create the proper climate for Congress to grant the city limited home rule in 1973.

At that point, life in office became more difficult for Washington because he no longer was simply a front-line warrior in a them-against-us battle. No longer did those who aspired to his position bank their fire out of respect for a brother under the gun.

Making the transition from an appointive to an elected chief executive was the major challenge for Washington following his inauguration Jan. 2, 1975, as the city's first elected mayor since 1871.

His opponents contend that he does not understand political constitutencies. They say he is too much of a by-the-book bureaucrat to lead city government properly. He relies on incompetent old friends - cronies - whose mismanagement has the city in an unworkable state, critics say.

THundreds of houses sit boarded up while the poor are displaced by housing speculation. The city's Department of Human Resources is in shambles and the subject of several court orders to shape up. Children die in fires while nearby fire companies are temporarily out of service. The municipal books are so ill-kept that they cannot be audited.

And except in on election year, the mayor spends his time, cutting ribbons and dedicating buildings, one critic contends.

"Walter Washington just doesn't understand that the world has expanded beyond LeDroit Park," said a 35-year-old, politically active lawyer who grew up amid the same black middle class values that Washington embraced when he settled here.

"He's part of the older generation that is very much aware of the limits of their time. He did what he could. But to people my age, it's like Amos 'n' Andy," the lawyer said.

A major responsibility of the mayor is running the city's 44,000-worker, $1 billion-a-year bureaucracy, and in that area Washington's style and results are most often faulted.

His is not a centralized leadership. The 40-member cabinet has met less than 12 times in the last two years. In March 1977, Washington canceled a scheduled cabinet meeting to attend a diplomatic affair for a visiting Israeli official.

Some believe that the city government, whose department heads traditionally have been able to deal directly with federal officials overseeing their areas, does not lend itself to centralized leadership. Others contend that Washington's hands-off policy could work if the department heads were different.

Very few of the Cabinet members, who include four women, come from outside city or federal government here. Those who do, tend to be old friends, friends of friends or past political associates. At other times, Washington has simply promoted the next in line of succession when a department head leaves.

In the last four years, his administrators have been the subject of several public snafus which some critics say are embarrassing and show lack of sensitivity. Some examples:

Budget Director Comer S. Coppie failed to tell the mayor that the White House planned to recommend a $10 million cut in the federal payment. Washington found out through a newspaper.

Housing Director Lorenzo W. Jacobs Jr., once reduced the hours during which low-income residents could apply for federal housing subsidies in order to avoid "extra paperwork."

Environmental Services Director William C. McKinney resigned under the cloud of federal grand jury investigation.

The city's Department of Human Resources lost millions of dollars in federal aid because it failed to operate facilities in compliance with federal standards. And in April, former DHR Director Joseph P. Yeldell was indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges stemming from the allegedly corrupt award of a city lease.

Washington often responds to these and similar matters by citing the limitations of budget autonomy. He makes pro forma statements about the allegedly corrupt actions, confident that they are only what he term "isolated incidents."

In the last four years, he has not publicly dismissed a single errant city department head, claiming in part that firings are prohibited by civil service law. And his bottom-line argument is that if the city were as poorly managed as his critics contend, it would not have completed the 1977 fiscal year with a surplus of money on the books.

Yet some of his intimates concede privately that Washington knows the limitations of his top assistants. "One of the most tragic things about Walter Washington," one intimate said, "is that he is a decent man with some good ideas who has never proposed anything innovative because he knows he does not have the competence within his own government to carry it out."

That intimate said Washington no longer reads all of the reports that come to him from subordinates because the mayor can anticipate what will be said. "Garbage in," said the intimate, "garbage out."

Yeldell's scandal-plagued stewardship of DHR, the city's largest department, created what most observers agree was the mayor's foremost political crisis and the low point of his administration in his first elected term.

Six months of critical newspaper reports in 1976 culminated during the years last two months in more than 30 consecutive days of front-page stories in both daily newspapers. Yeldell was accused of nepotism, cronyism and, later, conflict of interest.

As the wheels of city government ground virtually to a halt, "the mayor developed a grin tenacity" about the situation, an aide recalls. As one aide after another became the focus of attention, the mayor's characteristically cautious handling of the crisis could not obtain the fast developing controversy.

He ducked reporters' questions and became feisty and short-tempered. During one private moment, an observer recalls, he snarled profanities at a television report he considered incorrect.

In time, the accusations faded. On April 5, after several interal investigations that failed to produce hard evidence against Yeldell, the mayor symbolically returned his old friend to the DHR directorship.

Then, mortgaging part of his political future, Washington gave Yeldell the number three job in city government as general assistant to the mayor. One year later, a federal grand jury indicted Yeldell and developer Dominic F. Antonelli Jr. Their trial is to begin Oct. 2.

For many in the mayor's administration, the Yeldell period crystallized the belief that the media was out to get Walter Washington. For years especially when his friend Gilbert was city editor of The Washington Post, coverage of the mayor rarely was critical. After Gilbert's departure to join the city government and with the coming of home rule, the situation changed. The mayor's administration slowly developed a state of siege mentality toward the press.

As a result, news conferences are held infrequently. Statements are carefully screened. Telephone calls often are not returned. City Administrator Julian R. Dugas, the number two man in the government, rarely talks with reporters. "Don't say anything, and you won't say anything wrong," is what a former intimate recalls as the administration's reasoning.

Last year, a reporter attempted to query Dugas about his participation in a Harvard University symposium coordinated by the head of a city task force on DHR. Standing outside the door of his office with press secretary Sam Eastman, Dugas, who is black, called the reporter a "black sonofabitch," refused to answer questions and walked away.

"I can see the mayor (and his administration) getting gunshy with the press," said labor leader William Lucy, a strong political supporter of Washington. But I'm really dying to see some positive things reported about city government in terms of the mayor.

"I think the mayor's biggest mistake has been not to take the press on and force them to do the job of reporting that ought to be done. It's like we have not built schools. It's like we have not built housing. It's like the city council had not messed up rent controls and then the mayor had to bail them out," Lucy said.

Mayor and Mrs. Washington were asked repeatedly for interviews in the preparation of this profile. Three weeks after the original request, campaign manager Lacy C. Streeter said such an interview could not be scheduled.

Washington is heading into the Tuesday election with a fierce determination to maintain what he considers his - the office of mayor. He has brought the city out of the ashes of the 1968 riots. He has restored racial harmony. He has created, he says - whether by action or inaction, does not matter - the climate that has spawned an urban resurgence and the one-time "crime capital" has become a boom-town.

He is not about to give that up, he asserts, to people who have "never done anything" and want to run his city through a program of "on-the-job training" for mayors.

Some of his friends are not certain what makes the mayor run. At 63, he has been able to spend little time with his only child, Bennetta Jules-Rosette, a Harvard Ph. D. who teaches college in San Diego, and his granddaughter, 10-year-old Violine.

He has not become very wealthy in office. Reports filed with the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics show that during 1977, Washington's sole income was his $51,000 salary as mayor.

The report shows that he and his wife had an unusually large amount, $72,000, in the bank; a $10,400 equity interest in their home, and other assets totaling $104,724. Their estimated liablities were $1,400. Washington has refused to explain the large amount of money in the bank.

Months ago, when Washington was contemplating a second term, some friends suggested that the possible shame of leaving office in defeat should be avoided. But he is determined to keep his "good thing going," to sing his chorus one more time.

Only after Tuesday, he maintains, is it necessary to ponder the answer to the inevitable riddle: What would Washington be like if Washington were not mayor?