Washington — Back there in Audubon, Iowa, when he was a farm boy milking cows at orange sunrise, Charles Manatt heard the drumbeat. While some may march to ''a different drummer,'' as Thoreau said, in Manatt's case the march is always inexorably to the top.
He is at the pinnacle now, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), after a long, patient climb that began in high school.
''My political involvement started when I was 14 years old,'' he smiles. His official biography is a series of orderly steps, rising to a pyramid peak like an Aztec monument:
From Audubon High School class president to national college chairman of the Young Democrats; up through the Iowa Young Democrats to Young Democratic Clubs of America; to the chairmanship of the Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey presidential campaigns; further on up to chairman of the national Democratic Party's Western Conference and to the DNC executive committee; finally, to the summit - the DNC chairmanship in 1981.
Along the way he became a self-made millionaire banker and lawyer: president of the California Bankers Association, founder and partner in the high-powered law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenburgh & Tunney, with offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington.
As DNC chairman, he is the official mouthpiece of the party at a time when its last elected president (Jimmy Carter) is exiled to a political Elba and no new nominee has been chosen. Yet the trappings of power are barely visible as he sits at a breakfast meeting with Washington reporters and columnists, who address him as ''Mr. Chairman.''
He might be wearing bib overalls instead of his well cut navy pin-striped suit as he tells the press how he feels ''from an Iowa farmer's standpoint.'' Manatt, who sometimes hints he became a politician to avoid cleaning out the hog barns, now owns several farms.
He has been described in print as ''Dr. Hardball,'' because of his tough stance on uniting the party during the recent Chicago mayoral election. But the usual expression on his face does not suggest a tough pol so much as the bright, quick, quiet eighth grader who sits smiling faintly because he's done all his homework - and also knows there's a frog hidden in the next desk. He is on the tall side, broad-shouldered, as though he has lifted lots of bales, with a conservatively cut head of thinning dark brown hair going gray, and brown eyes behind metal-rimmed glasses.
He speaks softly, deflecting pointed questions and editing his answers carefully. As his wife says, people tend to underestimate him because of his mild appearance. He shares with Johnny Carson a certain wide-eyed, ingenuous Midwestern look that disarms people - until the punch line comes.
Asked about the seriousness of ''debategate'' involving the alleged channeling of Carter White House papers to the Reagan campaign, he smiles softly and says:
''The point right now is: We need to know what did they know and when did they know it? When they have a dead cat - whether the Beach Boys incident, or Burford, or whatever it is - they've dealt with their dead cats fairly quickly and effectively. And on this one, it doesn't appear like they're doing that.''
But he squelches a question about whether he and the DNC are ''having fun with this.''
''I don't think you have fun with something like this,'' he says, his face sternly serious.
''The issues obviously are about integrity in government, and you can start with Bill Casey. I think it would be a difficult chore for him to ever brief the President on intelligence matters if his memory for detail is as bad as it's supposed to be.''
(Casey, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has said he had no recollection of passing the purloined Carter briefing book to White House chief of staff James Baker III, as Mr. Baker alleged he did.)
A low-profile guy when he became chairman in 1981, Manatt has become increasingly articulate since his success with the party's uncharacteristically harmonious midterm convention in Philadelphia last year.
And in May he did some quiet muscle flexing over the Democratic National Committee telethon. Looking as cool as a CPA on the tube, he threatened to sue the Republican National Committee for alleged ''dirty tricks.'' For clogging telephone lines with hundreds of bogus calls, which he says resulted in a substantial loss of money pledges when contributors couldn't get through.
But there's another side to Manatt. It surfaced in a highly partisan and impassioned speech to the National Press Club in January. He spoke of ''the abject suffering in our land - the new wandering homeless of our modern 'Grapes of Wrath' farmers, watching helplessly as the work of generations is sold on an auction block, minorities for whom the Reagan recession is a deepening depression, killing all the hopes for opportunity and advancement raised in past decades.''
Although he's making news, he sees as more important his ''job as party chairman, and that's to get the flock put together by way of consensus politics, by way of something very old-fashioned that no one ever writes about anymore, . . . something we've forgotten about in the last 10 or 15 years, . . . old-fashioned organizing with the new, modern-day techniques as far as computers , voter identification, etc.''
He is unleashing party workers who are going to unemployment-compensation offices, union halls, food-stamp lines, and colleges in a massive voter-registration campaign. It is the sort of organized rebuilding of the party that helped the Democrats win back a substantial number of congressional and gubernatorial seats in 1982 after the crushing losses of the national elections in 1980.
To reach Chuck Manatt's corner office, you walk through the DNC headquarters, its reception room done in grasscloth, flamestitch sofas and leather-framed portraits of 16 Democratic presidents. The office is moderately large, tan, and businesslike, with a few personal touches: a gavel; a Carter White House photo; a Liberty Bell replica from Philadelphia; books ranging from Who's Who in American Politics to the ''The Reagan Revolution'' by Evans and Novak, a ''Dr. Hardball'' sign, a momento of what the New York Times reported Manatt was being called in Chicago during the mayoral race, because ''I was saying they ought to behave themselves and act like Democrats.''
And then there is the model.
The model is the symbol of Manatt's pride and joy: the new DNC headquarters building, the first home of its own the party has ever had. It is due to open next year at an estimated cost of $7 million to $8 million.
In addition to a fatherly pride about the new headquarters, Manatt lists some of the other accomplishments under his stewardship: new rules for strengthening delegate selection to the national convention (allowing for greater representation by professional Democrats, members of Congress, governors, and mayors as unpledged delegates), new emphasis on party involvement in electing candidates, and setting up an international secretariat to communicate with other parties around the world.
Charles Manatt, the ultimate organization man, says firmly that the eccentricities and divisiveness that have given the party a certain raffish charm are now out. His goal is ''hopefully making the party much more efficient, much more effective, much more reflective of our desires and aspirations, but not paying all that attention to the goofinessm.''
When that draws a laugh, he says seriously: ''Well, I mean that. There's a lot of goofiness that has gone on. Our mission is to change and control the government so we can have better policies put in place and programs for the people - and not to fight with each other, which I find largely a waste of time.''
''Virtually anything else you do, once you've spent your life growing up on a farm, seems easy,'' he says so drily he might be chewing on a piece of hay. His family had what he calls a classic Midwestern farm: milk cows, beef cows, hogs, corn, oats, and hay. He can talk about threshing rings and shucking oats with the best of them.
Now, he is a millionaire. He worked his way through college doing janitorial work after dances and did metal finishing at a refrigerator plant; hired on with a seed-corn company to de-tassle corn, hoe beans, drive a tractor, and clean out rat-invested bins. He joined radio station WHL in Des Moines, Iowa, as a farm-department trainee; and one summer interviewed farmers about fertilizers and wheat sprays.
There are no flies on Charles Manatt.
His longtime friend and law partner, Mickey Kantor, says: ''This is a man of tremendous dedication who's clear-headed about where he's going and has an instinct about what he needs to do to achieve it. Everything has a purpose to it. Sometimes that takes a tremendous toll; it's very wearing. Every phone call he gets 100 percent out of. He makes sure that every working hour is very productive.''
Is Manatt primarily a power broker?
Says Mr. Kantor: ''There's no such thing as a power broker in the Democratic Party. There are interests and interest groups. But no one is brokering power in the Democratic Party, given how divisive it is.''
Manatt's firm represents, among other interests, the Tobacco Institute, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, Northrop Corporation, and the Music Corporation of America. He is keenly aware of possible conflicts of interest between his DNC post and the lobbying done by his firm's Washington office. Mickey Kantor shields him ''from any type of potential conflict, any type of lobbying at all,'' he says. ''I don't do any lobbying on this job.
Manatt says of two instances cited in the press as possible conflicts of interest that he was not involved:
''It's terribly important to understand that both appearances and integrity to me are worth more than a whole lot of other things. And I certainly wouldn't, for a second, try to be even coincidentally brought into something that would be improper. I must admit I've probably been tested about 500 times, as far as well-meaning people not meaning to do something inappropriate. I just have to explain to them that, 'No, I can't do that.' ''
Kathleen Manatt describes her husband (whom she first met in the fifth grade back in Audubon) as ''three C's: caring, compassionate, calm. But he's also ambitious.''
A devoted family man, he is the father of three children: Michele, who just graduated from the Univeristy of California at Berkeley; Timothy, a freshman at Notre Dame; and Daniel, now entering ninth grade.
While Manatt is not the sort of guy you'd expect to do a flamenco on the board-room table, he does have a few excesses. He is inordinately fond of popcorn, music of the '50s, and relaxing on the sand at Laguna Beach. He has a taste for historical novels; rare steak and potatoes; coin collecting; tennis, golf, and swimming. He schedules his lunch hour during baseball season so he can watch son, Daniel, play.
''I'm an example of someone who grew up in Republican western Iowa in the '50 s,'' Manatt says: ''Not a Democrat in sight. No Democrats in office. Never got a student loan. Never got a VA [Veterans Administration] loan. Never had a GI bill. Never had a farmer's loan, nor an FHA or Small Business loan - or any program. And I believe in it very strongly for the people I helped. That, more than anything else, differentiates me from some of the Reaganites who believe, 'Well, gee, we did it on our own; everybody else can shuffle for himself.'
''I believe I very much did it on my own. And I believe in helping through the programs - helping other people help themselves.''