It looked less like a triumphal return than an awkward reunion, but former D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly is back -- sort of.

Twenty months after she left behind public life and a city government in deep disarray, the District's former chief executive broke her self-imposed silence today, using the Democratic National Convention to make her first political appearance since she left office. Her reemergence was as noteworthy for what she did not do as for what she did.

Gone were the high-energy persona and reformer's zeal that propelled Kelly into the mayor's office almost six years ago. Gone was the politician's taste for combat, for challenging the critics -- including her successor, Marion Barry -- who often have blamed her for the city's severe financial crisis.

In their place was a polite but pained reserve, a battle-scarred reluctance even to discuss the District's monumental problems and an abiding sense of relief not to be mayor anymore.

"People never mention the good things that we did, and it is very hurtful. But I think it's the times we're living in," Kelly said ruefully in a brief interview. "I like to look in a positive way and look forward, not be trapped in reflections on the past.

"I'm just so grateful to have my life back. To spend time with my family, to cook, to quietly go shopping and to the grocery store -- it all gives a joy to my life that wasn't there {as mayor}. . . . I've chosen a quiet, reflective lifestyle, and I'm happy with it."

Kelly's return to the public eye -- which she vowed would be brief -- utterly lacked the trappings that attended her as mayor. Early this morning, dressed casually and with no entourage, she shook a few hands and posed for pictures with D.C. Democrats attending the convention. At midday, she appeared on a Washington radio talk show. But by the night's floor session, she was just one of thousands of delegates in the convention hall with little to do but schmooze, which suited her just fine.

"This is the first convention I've ever attended where I didn't have to work all the time," said Kelly, who was the party's national treasurer two decades ago. Later she added, "I have the luxury now of being a little detached."

Kelly had a reason for making a bit of a splash: She's writing a book about the future of American government and wants to help shape public debate on the matter, she said, and that's why she appeared on "The Derek McGinty Show" on WAMU radio (88.5 FM). But on the air and in other conversations, the questions she was asked most often concerned D.C. government. Her answers, though cordial, were reluctant.

She refused to offer a detailed defense of her record as mayor. Kelly had never held office before she was elected in 1990. She campaigned as an enemy of the status quo, brandishing a shovel that she promised to use to clean up the municipal bureaucracy.

Kelly did cut the District's work force and get hundreds of millions of dollars in new federal aid. But spending ballooned during her administration, and she tried to balance the budget with maneuvers that critics dismissed as gimmicks. She left behind the city's largest budget deficit and a rickety government notorious for the poor quality of its services.

"Her four years in office were not very good years," said Joslyn N. Williams, head of the Washington area AFL-CIO and a D.C. convention delegate. Although he said Kelly has been "gracious to her successor," he added, "She had an opportunity to help turn the city around, and she botched the opportunity."

Kelly said on WAMU, "I think history will ultimately be a lot kinder" than such critics. And as for debating them, "I don't think there's any useful purpose in that kind of tit for tat," she said.

She argues now, as she did upon leaving office, that the city's fundamental troubles are not her fault. Because the District is one of the few major cities barred by law from taxing the income of commuters, she said, the city has "a structural problem. And I don't think it lends itself to being fixed until you deal with the larger structural issue."

Overall, she offered a grim assessment of the city's predicament. "It's very painful to watch," she said, and "our party has been painfully quiet. . . . It's been disappointing."

The process of reentering the political arena even for a day was not easy for Kelly. She was never a backslapping politician -- her former press secretary, Unnia Pettus, describes her as "very private" -- and her appearance at a meeting of the D.C. delegation this morning occurred as the session was breaking up and lasted less than 10 minutes.

And her time away from the spotlight did nothing to thaw her famously frosty relations with journalists in general and The Washington Post in particular. "I'll let my husband tell me what the article says," Kelly quipped.

When Kelly left the mayor's office in January last year, she spent a semester as a fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, but now her time is her own. She said she spends it writing and lecturing when college classes and others call. And her quest for solitude appears sincere: Politicians and elected officials say that since she stepped down, she has seldom been spotted on the circuit of community meetings and social occasions that public life demands.

Kelly said she is happy to let the book she is writing speak for her and to leave the clamor of electoral politics behind. Unlike Barry -- who preceded Kelly and then unseated her four years later -- Kelly emphatically says she will stage no comeback. "It was a very bruising four years," she said. "I would like to come out of that experience a better person. I don't see myself as a gadfly on the political scene." CAPTION: Former D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, a convention delegate, visits a radio booth.