FROM INSIDE the White House, the world rarely had the harsh edges or harsh colors seen in print or on the television screen. Certainly there were differences between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Assistant Zbigniew Brzezinski, but the cosmic struggle of ideological and personal styles portrayed in the media bore little resemblance to the daily reality of their relationship.

With Vance's resignation over the aborted Iran rescue mission, it is as if the first three years and three months of the Carter administration were an illusion and history begins tomorrow. Yet it is helpful to look at how the Vance-Brzezinski relationship developed.

The very sounds of their names echo polarity: CyrusVance, establishment insider; Zbigniew Brzezinski, immigrant outsider. Vance's bearing is solid and avuncular. Brzezinski's haircut makes him appear harsh and contentious. But those of us submerged in the White House submarine saw two thoughtful, intensely loyal senior officials carefully and scrupulously vying for the president's policy approval.

Unlike Henry Kissinger and William Rogers, Vance and Brzezinski responded to one another with sensitivity and respect. They took their lead from the president and were careful of each other's feelings and pride, even though they might disagree intellectually. Privately, Jimmy Carter encouraged debate but insisted on support once he made his decision. Cy and Zbig, as they always called each other, always felt that the force of their arguments would win the president's support. It was for him to decide. When lower-ranking aides covertly went to the press to rally policy support, both men ordered their staffs to stop the sniping. Rarely did Vance and Brzezinski emerge as personal antagonists, however far apart they might line up on an issue.

Although controversy makes news, the White House pace is so fast and the range of issues is so great that on a day-to-day basis survival is the rule. Disagreements on one issue or a mistake on another quickly give way to fresh demands for action. On balance, there was more to agree on than to differ over. There were many hard-fought victories to share: the Panama Canal treaties, Camp David, completion of the SALT agreement, NATO modernization and success in Zimbabwe. Often Vance and Brzezinski would phone each other in the morning to commiserate over how unfair a Washington Post columnist had been to both of them. At one point this year they decided not to speak to the offending pundit as a joint protest.

Vance won the respect of his colleagues, Congress and the National Security Council and White House staffs through his ever-courteous manner. There was always a friendly greeting or a few words from the secretary when he emerged from the situation rooms. He rarely showed anger. Annoyance was displayed only with a cold nod, a wave of the hand or a hard stare following a curt command.

Contrary to some reports, Vance ran a tight ship at the State Department, making his views and direction known clearly and firmly. Yet his basic approach to solving problems of state was that of a lawyer who seeks to litigate a solution through reason and compromise. He was willing to bend to achieve a result and he approached each issue through its parts rather than as a whole. He did not believe in dramatic gestures or forcing a situation. His values and style stressed patience and a belief that foreign affairs, like legal cases, demand time and often are best left to ripen for a better day.

The failure of the United Nations commission to gain the release of the hostages was perhaps Vance's greatest disappointment. Here was a case where the litigation strategy would have been vindicated had it worked and let to an orderly responsible return of the Americans in the embassy. Instead, despite prolonged negotiations and numerous postponements, the effort collapsed when the Iranians would not keep their end of the agreement.

Vance's way of doing business was to work with the principals, then put out only the dry details after the results were sealed and delivered to the president. By no stretch of the imagination could Vance be called an activist or a conceptualizer, but he brought to the White House the full backing of the Eastern establishment and a demeanor of quiet dignity. Privately Vance often seemed concerned about his position being usurped by Brzezinski, but with Jody Powell and occasionally the president as moderator, Hodding Carter and I were always careful to consult on their speeches and television appearances. All formal speeches by Vance, Brzezinski and Defense Secretary Harold Brown were cleared directly by principals in the group and the president and Brzezinski actee. In my experience at the NSC, this was simply not the case.

There was no need for such behavior. Brzezinski prides himself on never having had a Cabinet member, especially Vance or Brown, complain that their views have not been fairly presented to the president. Vance saw Carter whenever he desired and the secretary of state's daily evening report went directly to the president without comment by Brzezinski. The Friday morning foreign policy breakfasts in the Cabinet room essentially revolved around Vance's agenda. If Brzezinski disagreed with Vance he told him so on the telephone, describing the position he would present to the president. Getting one's views fairly and accurately presented to Jimmy Carter was never a problem.

The real issues, bases on strongly held differences in beliefs, approach and style, surfaced over timing and execution -- when and how to act. Do you sit down and talk to the Russians immediately after they have invaded Afghanistan or do you wait until they have begun to remove their troops? Do you hold a summit meeting with the Soviet Union before or after normalizing relations with China? Do you approach the Soviet Union with only preliminary information on a Soviet brigade in Cuba or do you wait to build a complete case and formulate a plan of action?

For Vance and his close associates, dialogue was the essence of policy making. Diplomacy is a continuing process of evolving a solution, much as arguing a law case, often with many postponements. For Brzezinski, timing, moments of action and resolution -- even if they involve risks -- are the essence of policy making. His approach to defining and resolving problems is to synthesize and, if necessary, polarize them, to make the options clear for the president.

If the president was emotionally more confortable with Vance's style, Afghanistan and Iran have forced him to choose most of Brzezinski's options. Zbig is quick, so quick that he's accused of being bumptious and having an itchy trigger finger. His dynamic and impatient drive are often mistaken for arrogance and cockiness. Yet on tough issues, like the Soviet brigade in Cuba, he privately urged a careful calculation of the options before going public.

Inside the Carter White House there was never a Vance or a Brzezinski policy. It was always Jimmy Carter's decision and it's very likely to remain that way.