Little is left of the old Kelsey Begaye.

Once, he was a drunk who cared about little more than his buddies and his next bottle of booze. He was homeless in Los Angeles, passing his days on park benches, his nights in shelters.

That he would rise to become president of the nation's largest American Indian tribe seemed, if not impossible, certainly unlikely.

But more than two decades later, he did just that. And a year into his first term, Begaye, 48, said he draws on that misguided, empty life in hopes of showing today's Navajo youth the vision he lacked.

"You ask any Navajo on the streets where the Navajos are going. They'll say 'I don't know. I don't care.' I want that to be different," he said.

In the past decade, the roughly 250,000-member Navajo Nation has been rocked by political turmoil. In 1989, two supporters of ousted president Peter MacDonald were killed in riots. In the 11 months before Begaye was elected in November 1998, the presidency was held by four people, two of them ousted for ethical violations.

"I guess I wanted to make a difference. I just really wanted to come in and make things happen," Begaye said.

That means restoring stability to the sovereign nation, which he hopes will make the reservation more attractive to businesses. Forty-six percent of the reservation's 165,600 residents are unemployed; about 72,000 are under 18.

Begaye grew up in Kaibeto, in the far western portion of the 4.8 million-acre reservation, which spreads out across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

He was one of seven children, raised in a home he describes as alcoholic. Only when pressed does he identify the drinkers as his parents and other relatives.

"His brothers, they were into alcohol," said Phillip J. Brown Sr., a former Navajo police officer in Kaibeto who remembers arresting Begaye.

His thirst for alcohol started early.

By the time he was in high school, he was sneaking sips of liquor from bottles in his locker. He was placed on probation.

Faded bluish tattoos--telltale signs from his gang days at an Albuquerque boarding school--still mark his hands: a dot smaller than a dime on his right and "CHOO-CHOO," a gang name, on his left.

They are the only physical signs of the old Kelsey Begaye, who spent 13 months in the Army being the "favorite target" in Vietnam: the one who carried the communications equipment.

Discharged in December 1971, Begaye returned to the United States. "By that time, I lost control of my life," he said. He went from job to job, quitting or being fired, until at 24, he became homeless in Los Angeles. He spent a year living off the kindness of shelters and churches and taking advantage of his sisters until, hung over and bored, he hitchhiked home.

He arrived in northern Arizona in November 1975.

His wife, Marie Begaye, remembers when she met her future husband: He was a drunken man trying to sell her a watch in a parking lot. He said he was hungry, but declined her offer to buy him a meal.

Her family told her he was a troublemaker, made crazy by his time in Vietnam. She befriended Begaye anyway, hoping something would push him to change.

He did, he said, when he converted to Christianity on Jan. 11, 1976. A violent hangover landed him in the unlikeliest of places to ride one out: a Christian tent revival. With his mother and aunts hoping someone would take him to a hospital, he headed down the aisle--and prayed.

He said he left clean and has remained so.

Begaye, married 23 years and a father of six, speaks openly about his transgressions--an outgrowth of years as an alcohol and drug abuse counselor.

"I think Navajos are forgiving," he said. "They begin to look to someone who has been through it all. My positive has outgrown my negative."