In 1945 Alan Cranston was 31 and had already had a lifetime's worth of interesting and exotic experiences. As foreign correspondent for the Mountain View (Calif.) Register-Leader, he sat in the Vienna courtroom where the assassins of Chancellor Dollfuss were tried in 1934 and covered student riots in Mexico in 1935. In 1936 and 1937 he worked for Hearst's International News Service in London and Rome. In 1938 he was the first American reporter in Ethiopia after Mussolini's conquest; when his plane flew too close to some trees, he spent four days waiting while Ethiopians sewed the bottom back on.

A sprinter himself, he met Jesse Owens and stood face to face with Hitler one night in Munich. In New York in 1939 he and a former Hearst editor published excerpts from "Mein Kampf" not included in the English version; lawyers for Hitler's publishers sued, and got Cranston's version off the market after just 10 days.

Cranston spent most of the war in Washington at the Office of War Information. He worked for Archibald MacLeish and Elmer Davis, and he got to know Eleanor Roosevelt; he says he lobbied her against the Japanese-American detention camps after visiting one and seeing his family's former gardener there. It was his idea, he says, to publicize Hitler's obliteration of the Czech town of Lidice by persuading Stern Gardens, Ill., to rename itself Lidice.

These must have been heady experiences even for a man as fortunate in his background as Alan Cranston was. His father was a successful builder and real estate developer in the Peninsula towns south of San Francisco (though he was threatened with bankruptcy in the 1930s); Alan grew up in the 1920s in a house called the Villa Warec in the hills above Stanford, with a swimming pool and servants. It was apricot orchard country then; it is the Silicon Valley today.

The family took summer trips to Europe. His father was a strong Republican --"he'd get purple with the mention of FDR's name." Cranston's interest in politics and journalism grew over dinner table conversations and when he listened on terraces to after-lunch and -dinner discussions between his father and the legendary San Francisco editor, Fremont Older, a progressive then in his 70s. It was Older and Pop Smith of the paper in nearby Mountain View who got Cranston started in journalism.

But Cranston's early career was not all success; "I learned more," he says now, "from setbacks than from success." He lost the "Mein Kampf" lawsuit and was sued by Haile Selassie as well for libel for writing that the emperor had a man sawed in half. His play, "The Big Story," intended for Broadway, died out of town; he failed to make the 1936 Olympics, where he might have run with Owens in Berlin. Like many young reporters and staffers today, he had lots of contacts and interesting experiences, but they didn't seem to be adding up to a successful career.

So in 1945 he took another path--or, rather, two of them. He decided to return to California, where he "surprised and pleased" his father by joining his business. He also met Grenville Clark, founder of the United World Federalists, and--first in California and then, for two years in New York as Clark's top staffer--tried to advance the cause of world government.

The emphasis on nuclear disarmament in his presidential campaign is no accident; this has long been his foremost cause. But there is also a practical side to Cranston: he stayed in the real estate business, and in postwar California, with the Peninsula growing rapidly, he made plenty of money; he has lived comfortably ever since, though never in the grand style of his parents.

And with an independent financial base, he also entered practical politics. He built the California Democratic Councils --a liberal group that he says now was also a mechanism to prevent Republicans from winning Democratic nominations under the state's old cross-filing system. With wife and family in the car, he criss-crossed the state, building the CDC; he gives no sign he saw this as a kind of exile after his glamorous years abroad and back East.

From the early 1950s, he wanted to become a senator, but in the Democrats' landslide year of 1958, he declined to fight for the Senate nomination and instead won the office of controller--a position whose main work was the distribution of patronage, in the form of property appraisal work. He was ousted in the Reagan landslide of 1966, and two years later took the Senate nomination, which seemed worthless until the moderate incumbent was beaten by right-winger Max Rafferty in the primary.

As a senator whose colleagues have been George Murphy, John Tunney, S. I. Hayakawa, and Pete Wilson, he has been the man the big economic interests in California-- savings and loans and farmers, show business and aircraft--have sought out when they needed help in the Senate; he knows how to deliver (though he can recite a list of California defense projects he's opposed).

Cranston recounts his past in a quiet tone --the style that leads reporters to say he has no charisma. Yet he has come out at least a little ahead of where the conventional wisdom placed him in each test. His impassioned interest in nuclear issues, his cautious stands on domestic issues--these reflect the postwar Cranston. But in his decision to become a candidate, you can see again the Alan Cranston of the years before 1945--impulsive, publicity-seeking, willing to risk looking foolish, and hoping for one big success.