"I do not rule Russia, ten thousand clerks do. -- Czar Nicholas I

By the time the pink slip finally arrived, it was anticlimactic.

Dr. Maxine Savitz, the government's top civil servant in energy conservation, had spent two years working as deputy to a man who'd come to Washington to get the government out of energy conservation.

They agreed about almost nothing. And when Joseph Tribble, assistant secretary for Energy, finally sacked her a week ago, they didn't agree about that, either.

He thought it was for her refusal to accept reassignment to a faraway outpost with diminished responsibility. She thought it was for having done her old job too well. The firing, with charge and countercharge, is under review for possible violations of Civil Service laws.

It is also the tip of an iceberg. Dismissals of top-level career civil servants are still a rarity in the federal goverment, but the frictions that underlie them are very much on the increase.

The Reagan administration has moved more aggressively, more systematically and more succesfully than any in modern times to assert its policy control over the top levels of its bureaucracy.

It has taken the relationship between short-term political appointees and long-term career civil servants--an age-old kabuki dance between change and continuity, responsiveness and resistance, political control and bureaucratic power--and sharply altered the balance of power toward the political side.

With personnel actions sometimes subtle and sometimes overt, it has put out a message that it expects ideological loyalty at the high levels of career service. Absent that, silence will do. Some examples:

* When Interior Secretary James G. Watt fired--the bureaucratic euphemism is Reduction in Force, or RIF--28 lawyers from a legal staff he considered hostile to development of natural resources, he said it was for budgetary reasons. A few weeks later, however, the department found six openings in the legal office.

One of the RIFfed attorneys, Derb S. Carter, reapplied for his old job and was questioned about his political background--a no-no according to Civil Service rules. Carter didn't have the right answers, nor did he get the job.

* The moribund Department of Energy RIFfed 19 top bureaucrats last year. Normally, they would have been protected by seniority, but they were fired because they had been given low performance ratings. They contended that the ratings were arbitrary, designed to force them out because they or their programs were not in favor. The matter is under review by the Office of Personnel Management.

* Dr. Peter F. Infante, a GS-15 who headed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Office of Carcinogen Classification, was almost fired for writing a letter in 1981.

It disputed a finding by a panel of the International Agency for Research on Cancer that there was insufficient evidence to call formaldehyde a carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent.

The letter found its way into the hands of the industry-backed Formaldehyde Institute, which in turn wrote an angry missive to an aide to OSHA's new, pro-industry administrator, Thorne G. Auchter.

"How do you control members of the bureaucracy who seem to be operating freely within and without government?" it asked.

The initial response at OSHA was to order Infante's firing, but Auchter backed off when a House science subcommitte got wind of the episode and conducted a hearing.

* Dr. Adrian Gross, a goverment pathologist for 18 years, was transferred last May from his job as chief of the toxicology branch of the Environmental Protection Agency's Hazard Evaluation Division to be senior science adviser there. From there he was transferred to a small field branch that monitors laboratory performance.

The second transfer came after Gross wrote a memo to his supervisors accusing them of improperly aiding two chemical companies in their efforts to register permethrin, an insecticide Gross said is a carcinogen.

* The four-year-old office of special counsel of the Merit System Protection Board--the government's prosecutor of cases of merit system abuse--has had a short, unhappy history of high turnover, low morale and little watchdogging.

For a year it was in the hands of Alex Kozinski, a loyal Reaganaut. In his brief tenure he conducted a seminar for federal managers called "How to Avoid Committing Prohibited Personnel Practices in the Reagan Administration," a guide to getting rid of problem employes and getting away with it. To infuriated employe unions this was the the fox in a chicken coop, with a vengeance.

It is purely a matter of perspective whether the inevitable chilling effect these moves have on the bureaucracy is a good thing.

Bernard Rosen, a former director of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, said he believes it has taken its toll on sound policy management.

"No private enterprise could be successful if its three or four top levels left every two years," he said. "But that's the way we do it in government, and it puts an enormous premium on stability and expertise immediately below."

The other view is that bureaucratic power has grown out of proper bounds over time and needs curbing. That power, at its root, derives from information: how it is developed, dispensed, withheld.

As society has grown more complex and information has grown ever more the province of experts, the argument goes, bureaucrats have come to be less responsive and more powerful.

That view tends to be associated with conservative scholars, who see an inherent liberal, or at least inherent pro-government, bias in bureaucracies. But it not limited to one side of the fence.

Harry S Truman, anticipating the transition to Dwight D. Eisenhower, said, "He'll sit right here and he'll say, 'Do this, do that,' and nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won't be like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating."

John F. Kennedy contributed his own brand of irony to the exasperation that elected officials of all stripes have always harbored toward the bureaucracies they can never seem to master fully.

"I agree with you," he once told a caller to the White House, "but I don't know if the government will."

While scholars and political scientists debate the proper role of the bureaucracy, no one disputes that the Reagan administration has changed it.

It shows more zeal in taking on the Civil Service than has any administration since the forshortened second term of the Nixon administration, and it has more tools--legal, ideological and budgetary--than the Nixon administration did.

The legal tool is the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which stripped top-level careerists of the most fundamental job protection of all--the right to keep one's particular job, so long as the job needs doing, funds are available and the performance has been satisfactory.

Had the Tribble-Savitz unpleasantness occurred in 1977 instead of now, Tribble could not have forced Savitz to take a new job down the corridor, much less halfway across the country.

He could, of course, have shut her off from any policy input, redeployed her staff, reorganized her department into oblivion or used any of the other management gambits that have been developed over the years.

The irony is that the Reagan administration has used the personnel flexibility promulgated by the Carter administration to carry out policies very different from President Carter's.

Ideologically, the Reagan administration has been able to attract to government service appointees who for the most part don't think government works. This puts them in obvious and sharp conflict with careerists, who, whatever their political beliefs, are committed to the idea that government does work.

The political appointees, moreover, have brought a missionary zeal to their task, figuring that they have 50 years of history to reverse and just 22 months apiece, the average tenure of a presidential appointee, to reverse it.

On the other hand, the bureaucrats have nothing if not time and patience. Storms, they know, are for riding out.

The deep budget cuts and dramatic shifts in spending priorities have shaken more departments more deeply than at any time in recent history. Shakeups always give political appointees more chances to leave calling cards.

How has the bureaucracy withstood the attack?

Obviously, those career civil servants who cannot abide the policy changes have left. For those who stay and feel "out of sync" with the new administration, by far the most common response has been to hunker down.

"You realize pretty quickly they're not too interested in what you have to say, so you just don't speak up," says one mid-level careerist at the Voice of America.

That is the prevailing professional ethic of most top bureaucrats: remain neutral on policy and wait to be led.

For those who feel more entrepreneurial and proprietary about policies and programs and who feel victimized by the new regime, the government's personnel watchdog mechanism has not offered much support. In its four-year history, the Merit Systems Protection Board had not upheld a single case of a top-level careerist charging he was the victim of a punitive job action.

But there are other bulwarks of protection.

"We find that it is far more effective to go to the Hill or go to the press and scream," says David Vladek, an attorney with the Public Citizens Litigation Group, which has defended several prominent scientists against attempts by administration officials to remove or reassign them.

The congressional tie is obvious. A careerist, often far better than a political in-and-outer, can develop an ongoing relationship with sympathetic members of Congress and staffers. Since the loyal opposition will always be represented on the Hill, the opportunities for leverage are clear.

The press role is more ambivalent, and in some ways reflects society's basic ambivalance toward the bureaucracy.

Former Office of Personnel Management director Alan K. Campbell says: "I have noticed that in all the stories I've read about an individual civil servant being transferred or fired for allegedly political reasons, the sympathy is with the bureaucrat. But in every story about a Cabinet member or high-level appointee claiming he can't get something done because of 'those damn bureaucrats' the sympathy is the other way."

Why are we torn? A quick history lesson is in order.

The merit system of today is the product of a runaway political patronage system of the 19th century, ushered in on a grand scale by President Andrew Jackson, a frontier populist who said he believed that trained bureaucrats in Washington constituted a dangerous elite.

The spoils system flourished for years, with excess building on excess until it toppled. It became a tawdry spectacle of scandal, of ghost workers, of federal jobs sought and bartered.

In the January after each presidential election, Washington was transformed into an unruly employment shop, with hordes of job seekers lining up outside the White House.

"I love to deal with doctrines and events, but my day is frittered away with the personal seeking of people," President James Garfield mused early in his term.

The frittering did not last as long as he might have wished. Four months after he assumed office Garfield was assassinated by a disappointed job seeker named Charles Guiteau, who had been visiting the White House daily to press his claim for the consulship in Paris.

The assassination provided impetus for the passage of the law that created the Civil Service System--100 years ago Sunday.

Initially it placed about 10 percent of the federal work force under strict merit rules for hiring and firing. Since then, the percentage of jobs covered by merit has grown steadily. Today, in a government of more than 2 million, a president has the power to hire and fire just a few thousand top appointees.

The merit system expanded in response to the national aversion to excesses of partisanship.

Its premise was that elected officials ought to make policy and career professionals ought to carry it out.

But as the line between making policy and executing it has blurred, the feeling has taken root that anonymous and unaccountable bureaucrats have emerged with too big a slice of the power.

Politicians of all ideologies have been adept at advancing this. But many close observers of the government's inner workings come away with a somewhat different verdict: that the bureaucracy, by and large, respects the limits of its authority; when it appears politically unresponsive, it often because its political leadership does not understand how to lead.

"The degree of loyalty and responsiveness of career employes is in most cases directly related to the quality of leadership they receive . . . . Careerists want direction and are willing to follow, but they must be led by someone who inspires confidence and respect."

The unlikely author is Frederic V. Malek, a corporate executive and former Nixon White House official whose name is attached to the infamous Malek Manual of the Watergate era, which outlined ways to subvert the Civil Service System to achieve policy control over the government. Malek says he never wrote the manual.

All of this leads back to Tribble, the political appointee, and Savitz, the careerist. Their troubles began a year ago when Tribble, a paper company executive new to Washington, was preparing to go to Congress with his first budget request.

He wanted to slash programs for energy conservation research dramatically. Savitz warned him of land mines ahead; if he tried to cut too much too fast, she said, he would get buried on the Hill.

Tribble tried; Congress buried. It wound up financing the energy conservation programs Savitz runs at 10 times the level her boss had proposed.

"He blames me instead of recognizing the fact that many people in Congress and the private sector think there is a proper role for the federal government in conservation," she says.

"We were incompatible," he says.

The relationship came unglued. Within months of the budget debacle, he asked her to take a job in Golden, Colo. The office of special counsel of the MSPB is investigating whether Tribble concocted the job and offered it to Savitz knowing she would refuse.