In that Great Ledger in the Sky, where they tote up the victories and defeats of earthy bureaucrats, it will be written that Frederick Bohen lost one, outflanked by underlings and vetoed by his boss.

Ah, such delusion. For in the federal bureaucracy, where they play million-dollar games, the neatest gambit is making victory look like defeat. Everyone wins that way.

So this is a story about Fred Bohen, an assistant secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and how the defeat he carefully engineered for himself was -- you guessed it -- actually a victory for his department.

The public could not have sensed this until late January, if even then, when President Carter sent Congress his budget for fiscal 1981.

Among the thousands of line entries in the budget were proposals for spending $3.6 billion on HEW's National Institutes of Health, the federal biomedical research arm.

The news, particularly in an era of restrictions on spending, was that this was the first presidential budget in eight years to propose a substantial increase for NIH, with the new money earmarked for additional basic research.

Actually, that news was being made last summer in the warren of HEW offices on Independence Avenue, where Bohen and his boss, Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris, were assembling a hand that would put expert poker players to shame.

As with all parts of the executive budget, Carter's budget for NIH is an expression of policy -- a point often lost in the heated debates over federal spending. He who controls the dollar controls policy.

The $3.6 billion proposal for NIH is this administration's ultimate expression of biomedical research policy. Pat statements of purpose are one thing. The budget is the guts of it all, putting the money where the mouth is -- or is not.

The argument that ensues, the public pressures and the congressional responses that surface are one part of the story. An earlier part occurs in the shadows of the bureaucracy, where little-known figures such as Fred Bohen help forge basic decisions and directions through their influence on budgetary matters.

In the parlance of government, there are delightful terms for the grappling that goes on. One is the "Who-Struck-John" table. As a budget moves through the federal hierarchy, amounts are changed and cut."Who struck John?" they ask along the line. Who, in other words, wielded the hatchet?

Another is the "Washington Monument Game," for the time when the keepers of the obelisk supposedly said a tight budget would force closing of the monument to the public. More money was forthcoming, of course, after the uproar. The monument game can be played with any part of the budget.

The NIH budget always has been a part of the fiscal games that presidents, cabinets and congresses play. Congress, urged on by pressure groups and its own inspiration, customarily has appropriated more for NIH than most presidents have sought.

Secretary Harris knows all about Washington budget games but she professes not to like them. In point of fact, taking over for Joseph A. Califano Jr., who was fired in July, Harris didn't have much time for games as the fiscal 1981 budget was being readied at HEW.

That is how Bohen her assistant for management and budget, came to play his key role. On the day Califano was pole-axed by the White House, Bohen was meeting with Dr. Donald Fredrickson, director of NIH, and other health officials on the NIH requests for 1981.

Bohen and HEW much earlier had been put on notice by OMB: find $900 million to cut from the HEW budget and allow nothing for inflation. With NIH already asking for $200 million more than Congress appropriated this year, Bohen had trouble.

"I felt that with that, plus about $280 million more that Congress added for NIH beyond what the president sought the year before, we would be half-a-billion dolars over the limit. How could we do that?" Bohen said the other day.

Then Califano was fired. "It was tumultuous," Bohen remembered. He knew there would be a new secretary starting "from scratch" on a budget that had been months in preparation.

His decision was cautious: let's stop right here and give Harris a hold-the-line budget, just as OMB ordered. Let the new secretary make the decisions on what items to fight over with OMB Director James T. McIntyre.

Harris took office in early August and by mid-month she was ready to meet Bohen, Dr. Julius Richmond, head of the Public Health Service, Fredrickson and other health officials.

Just before the meeting, Bohen slipped a note to Harris. He recommended that she overrule him by authorizing an increase in the research grant money sought by NIH. And he suggested a look at the politics; hold-the-line budgets were being mauled in Congress and the administration was being accused of surrendering its governing judgment. Here was a chance to show some leadership.

"Set some priorities and argue for them vigorously," was Bohen's advice. Harris followed that tack. She put Frederickson through his paces, but he was convincing about the need for more money in basic research.

OMB budget examiners rejected HEW's first request, eliminating the increases for NIH. They told Harris and Bohen they could accept no more than stand-pat funding for NIH -- even though White House science adviser Frank Press for months had been nurturing the concept of more research funding in the government. OMB was one of his targets, where he had conducted seminars on the need for more research.

By then it was December. Harris and McIntyre talked personally about their differences, as the procedure on appeals allows, and the OMB director gave in. The result was approval of an extra $139 million for NIH research programs. But partly to pay for this, some NIH money for training grants was cut back.

A serious policy decision had been made -- all of it out of public view, all of it by persons accountable only to the president. By approving the research increase, the administration was committing future budgets to higher spending and probably inviting congressional criticism.

The storm would come later. Legistators protective of training grants, which would be cut, were upset. Medical schools were upset. Even some research scientists were upset, though they liked the extra money for basic investigation.

Patricia Harris is sympathetic, but unmoved. "We sent them a budget that they can adopt. It is a budget that has philosophy, that has a set of goals. I want every dime the president has requested and not one penny more," she said.