I met Edward J. Derwinski during lunch recently at one of Washington's better known power restaurants. We were introduced by the man I was having lunch with. Derwinski, who is the first secretary of veterans affairs, is a large man and he certainly seemed affable. A veritable teddy bear, you might even say.

Teddy bear? C'mon. Nobody calls men in the business world teddy bears anymore. We are far too dignified for that these days. We treat our colleagues -- male and female -- with much more respect than that. We're long past those flirtatious put-downs that passed for repartee in those old black-and-white movies. Or are we?

It turns out that our secretary, the teddy bear, is a bit of a cave lion in this respect.

He has an office manner that would cause him to be sent to a retraining program if he worked in a civilian company in town. Maybe even a reprogramming program. Turns out that part of his charm is that he confers nicknames on the women who work for him.

According to Newsweek magazine, "he insists on calling them by those names even in meetings that include non-departmental personnel. Assistant Mary Jo Munnelly is "Little Miss Coffee Maker," operations and policy staff members Kathrene Hansen and Camille Barry are "Little Miss Muffet" and "Zsa Zsa," respectively; assistant Sandy Peyton is "Miss America"; assistant Jane Saunders is "Shirley" because Derwinski thinks she looks like Shirley Temple Black. The only black woman in the office, assistant Judy Williamson, is called "Lena"-as in Lena Horne.

Nothing like working in an office where you have your own identity.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for 27.3 million veterans, is not known as the most enlightened federal agency. It has sufferred from an inferiority complex for years because of its sub-Cabinet status. It is a male-dominated hierarchy whose clients have almost always been men. Only in recent years have its clients been about 5 percent women. It is a favorite landing spot for former military officers. It has just received Cabinet status, however, and Derwinski has an opportunity to make it an agency of the first rank.

He seems, however, to be caught in a time warp. Derwinski is a former Chicago politician who served 12 terms in Congress before he got redistricted after the 1980 Census and lost his seat. He then took up residency as a political appointee at the State Department, which no one would ever confuse with getting any experience in the real world. Shortly after his nicknaming habits came to light, he got caught using the word "wetback" at a breakfast of military retirees in which there was a discussion of drug trafficking. He later referred to that as a "stupid mistake" and said he apologized "literally on the spot."

Derwinski told Washington Post reporter Bill McAllister that he thinks he started his nicknaming habit when he came here from Chicago 32 years ago and dubbed a woman who had a deep voice "Tallulah" after the actress Tallulah Bankhead. He said she carried that name until she retired.

He has expanded his repertoire since then, and those women whose names he doesn't know, or who haven't had the honor of being rebaptized by him, he calls "Angel."

Derwinski, known in the office as "the Big Cheese," told The Post he runs "a very informal, friendly, folksy -- rather than bureaucratic -- office."

Exactly how all this is received is not clear. Judy Williamson told The Post that Lena is "just his pet name for me. He has a pet name for everybody up here and he says it in a way that isn't demeaning. He is a great boss to work for."

Newsweek reported that some women in his office "were livid over what they consider his demeaning treatment of them." It quoted a top woman staff member thusly: "It's hard enough to get credibility in the professional world. Then you walk into a meeting and hear, 'Oh, come on in angel, have a chair.' It's horrible."

Mary Jo Munnelly, a k a "Little Miss Coffee Maker," said she may have gotten the name because she often used to brew the first pot of coffee. "I don't think he means any harm. It's his way of . . . thinking of us all as equals," she said.

The trouble with that kind of thinking in an office, of course, is that people aren't equals in terms of salaries, titles, responsibilities or power. Derwinski runs the agency, and he'd be the last person on earth to say that anyone working for him is his equal. He may run a friendly operation, and heaven knows, in this town that could almost be mistaken for enlightenment. But the history of women in the work force is full of warnings about what happens when male employers and bosses treat them with less than a full measure of the professional respect their jobs require.

In the real world, teddy bears aren't as friendly as they seem.