They are the valets of power, the political functionaries whose job it is to see that the wheels are oiled and turning smoothly, the mail is answered, the timetables met, the news media appeased.

They are anonymous almost by definition, and sometimes fuzzy on their exact job titles. Their positions are described in the appositive: "an aide to . . ." or "a spokesman for . . . ."

The hours are long, the public recognition almost zilch, the job security nonexistent.

Schedule C, top grade. Have credentials, will travel.

"There was the expectation, at least it was mine, that I wasn't going to be there forever," said Philip S. Angell, who served at the right hand -- some say as the right hand -- of William D. Ruckelshaus until Ruckelshaus left the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month.

"It doesn't bother me," he said. "I don't know whether it's normal. It's been part and parcel of my life for almost 10 years, and it doesn't trouble me."

From Rusty Brashear, chief spokesman for Interior Secretary William P. Clark, who resigned unexpectedly on New Year's Day: "After a while you get inured to it. It comes with the territory. If you don't like it, you can always go to dental school."

Angell and Brashear hold flash passes on the political metrorail, and it's train-changing time in Washington. The trains run fuller when the White House changes hands, but the rails rumble all the time, carrying political appointees through a world where there are no jobs, only "challenges," and no unemployment, only transitions.

The rules of the road are fairly simple: political loyalty, hard work and the ability to roll with the punches.

For the time being, Angell and Brashear are in their current offices, smoothing the way for their bosses' successors. After that . . . they look at each other and shrug. In the nation's capital, "aide to . . . " is no spot for someone who is counting on a 20-year pin and a gold watch.

As surely as he remembers the day Ruckelshaus left the EPA for the first time -- "It was April 10, 1973. I'll never forget it" -- Angell remembers the day he knew Ruckelshaus was coming back.

"I watched him on television, getting on a plane in Seattle, and I was yelling at the TV, 'Don't do it! Don't do it!' "

Ruckelshaus did. Less than a month later, Angell, too, was on his way back to Washington.

"We met at the Urban Institute at 8 o'clock one morning in early April, for about 15 minutes. He didn't actually say very much. He just said, 'I want you to come back and we'll talk about what it involves, but I need you to come back and work with me.' "

Like Ruckelshaus, Angell was no stranger to the administrator's office on the 12th floor of EPA headquarters. He helped Ruckelshaus launch the agency in the early 1970s, working -- under a title he now cannot recall -- as "a jack of all trades."

"When we officially walked back in there, it was May 2, 1983, and it was almost 10 years to the day when he walked out. It was the strangest sensation," he recalled.

There wasn't much time to savor sensations. "I was overwhelmed with the amount of work involved on the 12th floor in comparison to what it was 10 years ago," he said. "This agency puts in excess of 2,000 items in the Federal Register every year, and a big chunk of those require the administrator's signature."

Angell, oiler of wheels, wasn't about to let Ruckelshaus spend his time autographing word changes in state clean-air plans. Operating first from a reception-room sofa -- "I didn't have a place, so I just used the couch," he said -- and later from an office a few long strides from the administrator's office, he took charge of the endless fountain of paper rising from below.

An agency paper-flow chart tells the story. The arrows emanate from a dozen labeled boxes. Green arrows, blue arrows, red arrows form a bristling rainbow that converges at the box labeled "Angell." There's only one box above Angell. A single arrow points to it, and a single arrow comes out.

"There were two people who had authority to use the signature machine," Angell said. "And I would say I exercised it with some vengeance."

A longtime Washington environmental reporter once described the EPA administrator's office as a "floating crap game." If so, Angell was chief croupier.

He is 40, a Michigan native with a degree in American history and an on-again, off-again job with the Washington political consulting firm of Bailey, Deardourff. He's also an old hand at transitions.

His 14-year association with Bailey, Deardourff has been interrupted twice by stints in Washington to work for Ruckelshaus, but far more often by the inevitable "downtime" that follows the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of even-numbered years.

"Always at the end of an election year I've had time off for one reason or another," Angell said. "You really do need that time afterward to recharge. It's not an uncomfortable feeling for me to take time off. There is absolutely no continuity to that kind of life, but it's not unsatisfying, at least when you're younger.

"It's like a sabbatical, only it comes more frequently than every seven years."

It was winter 1982, the end of an election year, and Brashear was in transition. His boss, former representative Robin L. Beard Jr., a Tennessee Republican, had been defeated -- "rubbed mercilessly in the dirt," by Brashear's account.

Brashear was sifting through an assortment of job possibilities when a friend on Capitol Hill called with what Brashear was looking for: a challenge.

"He said, 'Geez, I hear you griping about all these so-called boring jobs you're looking at. I got one for you that's not boring.' I said, 'Yeah, what is it?' He told me and I said, 'No, that does not sound boring.' "

The job was chief spokesman for EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch.

"I knew there was some crisis, possibly constitutional, involving subpoenaed materials," Brashear recalled. "I had no idea that the issue would grow as it did. That's not to say I might not still have considered taking the job."

Brashear reported for work on Monday, Feb. 7, 1983. President Reagan had fired Superfund chief Rita M. Lavelle the previous Friday. Scarcely a month later, Gorsuch, who had remarried and changed her name to Burford, had resigned as well.

By the usual rules of the political appointments game, Brashear should have been among the first to follow Burford out the door, to be replaced by a spokesman more visibly aligned with the policy direction of the new administrator.

But the Tennessean had quickly won friends, both inside the EPA and among reporters, who appreciated his straightforward manner and his quick wit. His easygoing style suited Ruckelshaus, whose first order of business was resolving confrontations. Brashear stayed.

Less than a year later, Brashear moved to Interior to put the same skills to work for Clark. Like others in the department, Brashear was caught by surprise on New Year's Day when Clark abruptly decided to return to California rather than serve through a second Reagan term.

Transition time.

"I am glad that I learned to go through it with something approaching calm," he said. "I didn't have it the first time I went through it at the EPA. My pulse was somewhere around 190."

This time, Brashear projects the very soul of equanimity. "Wherever you go, you do a good job," he said. "And if you don't have that confidence in your abilities to perform, then you should not be in this line of work."

For the political commuter, self-confidence would appear to be a necessary attribute. The average tenure of a political appointee is 18 months per job.

But frequent travelers also learn to have confidence in the supportive power of "the system" -- the political machinery that holds the power to reward those who are skilled and steadfast.

"One of the more powerful motivations in this town is loyalty, political loyalty," Angell said. "It is both strength and sometimes a terrible weakness. You are loyal to those people who are loyal to you and have helped you, and that sometimes is why people hang on longer than they should or get into a position of defending people that they know they shouldn't. Because you don't cut loose people who have helped you. It's a political given."

Brashear may offer the clearest example. Though he is outspoken in his admiration for Clark, he is also articulate in his defense of Burford -- both on and off the record. "I came back as a Republican to work in this administration," he said. "She had a job for me."

"I wasn't grinning, calling up all my friends saying, 'Hey, I got this great new job at EPA," he said. "I knew damn well it was going to be tough."

For the political appointee, however, loyalty extends only to the boss, never to the job. The job is the challenge, sometimes two or three of them to a four-year administration, each requiring a measure of intensity and each ending in the inevitable transition.

Angell, uncertain of his future but "not worried about it," calls his most recent stint at the EPA the toughest challenge yet. "The question was: Was everything I could bring to bear against this, was that sufficient to the demands of the job as it evolved?" he said. "In the best sense, that's a challenge."

Brashear, on his second high-level job in two years, agrees.

"There are victims occasionally, caught unfairly," he acknowledged. "But, by and large, when somebody in this town has done a good job, has been loyal and been principled -- even if they might get crosswise with who they work for -- word gets around that they're okay and the system will pick them up."

"That's a marvelous thing about this town," he said with a grin. "It is the only place in this country where you can do lots of different jobs without someone automatically accusing you of . . ."

Angell, chuckling, finished his thought: ". . . of being somehow unstable.

"The abruptness of tenure in jobs is something that is much more accepted in Washington than it would be anywhere else in this country," Angell continued. "You can walk into Washington and have a job for six weeks and they'll give you a loan for something, because they understand."