A subdued czar paid a call on a local orphanage and scarcely opened his mouth.

William J. Bennett, the national drug policy director, is one of the mouthiest members of the administration, right up there with White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, for sounding off on subjects not in his immediate purview.

But this week, Bennett made a penitential visit to St. Ann's Infant Home here, and demonstrated for 90 minutes how quiet he can be.

The drug czar was not himself at all, as he toured the bright modern building and greeted sisters and babies who had no idea who he was. He was totally in the listening mode. As education secretary, he tried to teach teachers. As a campaigner for George Bush, he felt it necessary, in spite of his multiple degrees, to deride over-educated Bostonians. As drug czar, he has berated local officials, members of Congress and others for various shortcomings or failures to agree with him.

He has most recently engaged in a noisy denunciations of New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a potential Democratic presidential nominee. Bennett refers to him, witheringly, as "this guy from New York."

Bennett enjoys stirring people up, but last April, he said something that landed him in scalding hot water. He said that in an era of drugs, the return of the orphanage was called for.

It so happens that a number of people agree with him, including a former Philadelphia judge named Lois G. Forer, who wrote "Bring Back the Orphanage: An Answer for Today's Abused Children" in the Washington Monthly.

But in the social work establishment, orphanage is a word that raises hackles and provokes a storm of protest, as Bennett found out. In an Orlando, Fla., speech -- although he prefaced his remarks with a disclaimer that "no one is a stronger proponent of the family" -- he evoked furious reaction, particularly from blacks, an important new constituency for President Bush.

He found that St. Ann's Infant Home, chartered by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, made his case better than he could. A modern, gaily decorated building, with a high ratio of staff to children and a full complement of foster grandparents, it is the antithesis of the grim, Dickensian institution of the stereotype.

Bennett gratefully entered its precincts, and put himself in the hands of the administrator, Sister Josephine Murphy, a woman who could speak for him with an authority and eloquence he had the wit not to try to match.

Meekly, Bennett, a parochial school graduate who has a respect verging on awe for older women wearing habits -- "I still have sore knuckles," he said in a rueful aside -- followed Sister Josephine through the home, into nurseries for babies of drug-addicted mothers and babies who test HIV-positive, through the suites for the adolescent mother and baby program. He picked up babies and obediently held them with their faces away from the cameras -- there were a number of photographers in attendance -- in response to Sister Josephine's injunction.

Meekly, he sat down for a kind of news conference. He deferred to the sister. Obviously she knew a great deal about the subject, and obviously she was on his side. He inquired respectfully how drugs had changed child care. She launched into an impassioned discussion of the changes during her lifetime. "We used to have orphans of the dead, now we have orphans of the living," she said. "That's the difference drugs have made, and there are not enough good foster homes out there."

Bennett murmured about the difficulty of making the case for removing children from homes destroyed by drugs.

Sister Josephine burst in. "We have children who can tell you all about how to have sex, and how to make crack. They don't know how to ride a bicycle or throw a ball." She told of judges who return babies to homes where they are almost certain to be abused again. "I get so angry," she said. Then she gave him a small smile -- "I shouldn't be yelling at you."

Bennett said soothingly, "It is part of my job." He volunteered, without fear of contradiction, that children are entitled to "love and order -- make that stability -- 'order' is too Republican."

The older children, ages 4 to 10, gathered in the foyer to see him off. Led by recreation director Mary Bader, they gave him a chorus of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and several hugs and handshakes.

By afternoon, he had reverted to type, and was calling a House Appropriations subcommittee "cheap, dishonest and sneaky" for cutting money for his drug programs. The Democrats, in a striking role reversal, said he had money he hadn't yet spent. Bennett, completely himself again, rejoined, "So shut up, you guys."