For some time I had been rather perplexed by the strangely Byzantine intrigues of the Reagan inner circle. But, I confess, the affair of Alexander Haig threw me totally for a loop. There, all of a sudden, was the corpus delicti, yet the normal retinue of detectives, pundits, and investigative reporters wound up, for some reason, averting their gaze.

I had counted on the press; but obviously I had been mistaken. The president, in making his sudden and startling announcement that his senior Cabinet officer was about to disappear, indicated he would take no questions, since he would hold a press conference the following week. And yet, at the ensuing press conference he stated that he had already indicated he would take no questions. Apparently this satisfied the press--for, confronted with a stonewall, it subsided. That the departing secretary had raised fundamental issues regarding the lack of consistency, clarity or steadiness of purpose in this nation's foreign policy seemed to have excited no curiosity whatever.

The failure, timidity or suborning of the press having been made manifest, I turned in desperation to my old friend, Mr. Pang, for a few clues. Pang was now in his late 60s, a student of modern Chinese history, of the Cultural Revolution and of the declining years of Mao Tse-tung. Sometimes --to my great surprise--he seemed to suggest that the experience of those Maoist years had universal applicability. Yet it had been Pang who, in the first troubled months of the Reagan foreign policy, had assured me that the White House inner circle regarded Secretary Haig as a dangerously conspiratorial Lin Biao type, who had to be carefully watched.

It had been Pang who, one weekend that Secretary Haig planned to go salmon fishing in Canada, called me at 2 a.m. to inquire whether I had heard the rumor that the Air Defense Command had been alerted--to shoot down any aircraft carrying Cabinet officers, if they were detected departing American air space. I had brushed it off at the time, but with these latest developments, I turned again to my friend, Pang, for a plausible explanation.

"Were you at all surprised?" I inquired for openers.

"Not at all," Pang responded with his usual air of omniscience--"save for the possibility that the end might have been more violent."

"You mean like Lin Biao's?" said I with some amazement.

"Precisely," Pang replied. "Haig's probable fate has been marked from the first days of the administration. It's been so obvious." Pang looked at me with a rare patronizing expression. "In a case like this, one hardly needs wall posters."

"Haig was both a challenge and a threat," he continued. "Alone in the Cabinet, he took all those professions about Cabinet government seriously. That's like believing," Pang almost snorted with contempt at Haig's innocence, "that one of our Autonomous Regions--should have autonomy. Haig simply failed to get clearance from the Central Committee."

"Moreover," continued Pang in a more serious vein, "Haig was always engaged in mysterious dealings with foreigners--the Europeans especially (that was his power base), but the Israelis and the Chinese as well. Whenever he went near Europe, he visibly frightened the White House gang. Look how he was deliberately humiliated on that last trip to Europe."

Pang intoned those last four words with a note of menacing finality, and then went on: "And he was given repeated warnings. Remember his first deviation from Reagan's Taiwan commitment while in Peking. He received a signal, indeed a public rebuke, from Washington--while standing quite exposed on the tarmac at the Peking airport."

"These things happen," I protested. "He was, after all, responsible for our foreign relations. It's really not so simple."

Pang looked at me, quite nettled by my Western obtuseness:

"Don't you see? History repeats itself, as you Occidentals say--even when you can't quite grasp its deeper meaning. Consider Mao as a generic example: a leader with the supreme executive power in his declining years. Late in life he marries again, to a former actress, with more ambition than talent--who acquires great influence over him and who engages in intimate collaboration with driven ideologues. Can't you see the parallels here at home. This group of Californians, who are so influential and so assiduous--don't you see? They are the new Shanghai group. They want no challenge either to their ideological goals--or to their power."

I gasped at Pang's assertions--yet still found them rather intriguing.

"Originally, they believed they could tame Haig--by putting this man Clark into the State Department--supposedly as Haig's deputy, but actually to watch him. But Haig is no amateur--and he tamed Clark. Clark's move over to the White House early this year revealed the critical shift in power and support. It made the Gang's power irresistible . . . Haig's days were numbered."

"You could discern that so early?" said I, still bewildered by Pang's disquieting parallels.

"I only suspected at that time," Pang continued, "but the pattern became clear with the so-called vacation trip to the Barbados at Easter. On the surface it seemed purposeless--until the president's swim in the ocean--in the prescence of all those TV cameras."

"The president's swim," I burst out in amazement. "What did that show?"

"Don't you see?" Pang said triumphantly. "If a Gang of Four . . . or a Gang of Five," (for once Pang's air of authority deserted him, as he fumbled rather uncertainly for the correct number) "seeks to operate effectively under the mantle of a supreme leader, it must move quickly to demonstrate that the Great Helmsman is alive, well--and in charge.

I gazed at Pang expectantly.

"Don't you remember," Pang's voice rose, "Mao's re-emergence, his renewed war, aided by the Shanghai ideologues, with the Peking bureaucracy? It all started with his glorious nine-mile swim across the Yangtse; it ingeniously combined personal vigor with a splendid photo opportunity."

Finally I saw the light: "You mean that was a clear sign that the Revolution would continue?"

"Right," Pang snapped, "all these cries from the radicals, 'let Reagan be Reagan' --it's simply a new variant of Mao- thought.

Yet," he concluded almost wistfully, "in this case its a rather feeble sign ... a pretty poor show compared to the mighty Yangtse . . . By the way, how wide is the Mississippi?"