EARLY IN MY journalistic career, I found myself touring a New York art museum with none other than Dwight David Eisenhower, then the former president of the United States but still very much the amateur painter. It was his paintings we were looking at and it was his opionion that they were not very good. "You and I know that if I had not been president, they would have burned this stuff a long time ago," he said. I was startled.

What startled me even more, though, was Eisenhower's complaint that he had less time to paint after leaving the White House than he had before. As president, he said, he used to duck into a small studio somewhere in the White House and paint his warm heart away. Ike, you may recall, was no workaholic. h

Well, neither, it turns out, is Ronald Reagan. So far the President-elect has thrown himself into his responsibilities by getting haircut after haircut, shopping, being fitted for formal wear, having dinner, having dinner, having lunch and having dinner. He seems to have only a passing aquaintance with his cabinet and almost no idea what his schedule holds for him. Ike would warmly approve and the voters, of course, warmly approved of Ike.

Since Eisenhower, though, the voters have been weaned on a succession of presidents who've made something of a fetish about work -- the ability to do it nonstop and virtually round the clock. John Kennedy inaugurated the era of incessant work, partly, I think, because he really did like to work (he especially liked to read) but also as a matter of image. He ran successfully as the young, dynamic senator from Massachusetts and the word that quickly became attached to his administration was vigor. It was a word of his choosing and it meant that one did all things with zest -- everything from touch football to playing politics.

From Kennedy on, each president tried to establish that no one, but no one, in the entire administration, could outwork the man in the White House. Each went out of his way to show that he worked virtually round the clock and was in tip-top physical shape. Maybe they were, but some of them were awful presidents.

Reagan, it appears, is not going to play that game. As governor of California, he was a 9-to-5 man. Unlike Carter, who only talked of the virtues of getting home in time to tuck the children into bed, Reagan actually did so -- altlhough his children were a bit old to tuck. He seems to have done the next best thing. He watched television, read a bit and hit the sack at a decent hour. If California suffered from this regimen, it is not apparent from the record.

What is apparent from the record, though, is that Reagan delegated. In this, he was once again like Ike. Eisenhower had been supreme commander of allied forces in World War II and had obviously learned how to delegate. As president, he presided over the government and, as George Reedy points out in "The Twilight of the Presidency," he paid little attention to the day-to-day business of governing. He was president, not an aide to the president, not a cabinet officer.

Whether Reagan will closely emulate Ike has yet to be seen. But if he does and manages to do it in such a way that he does not become the captive of his staff, then the nation will be better for it. For too long now, presidents have been measured by their ability to work hard and their capacity to absorb enormous amounts of detail -- much of it having nothing to do with the job of being president. Press conferences, for instance, have become virtual quiz shows. It's all so silly. Expertise, as Reedy points out, can be hired.

This obsession with sweat and detail is not presidential. The detail tends to bind the man like a Gulliver. It mires him, brings him down to the level of a staff assistant. There is no sweep to it, nothing grand about it. Instead of being the presiding officer and leader he should be, the president becomes the ultimate functionary, the country's No. 1 bureaucrat. He gets measured by his grasp of detail, his energy, his ability to work, rather than the broad sweep of his policies -- his judgement, his wisdom.

What gets lost is that magisterial aura that enhances the presidency and provides the nation with a sense of leadership. This is what Ike understood, and strictly in the sense of staying popular -- something none of our recent presidents have been able to do -- it worked. Eisenhower's method was almost biblical. There is a time for all things -- a time to work, a time to think and even a time to get a haircut.