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For the capital's showboat - a tough new captain. As Ralph Davidson, the no-nonsense former chairman of Time Inc., takes the helm at Washington's Kennedy Center, will he chart a change in course for national culture?

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Hedley Donovan, former editor in chief of Time magazine, describes Davidson as ``a very capable executive, who would be very good at money-raising.'' Mr. Donovan, also describes him as ``a superb kind of Time Inc. ambassador, very attractive, personable, charming, a good speaker, a gregarious, likable man.''

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Davidson was not amused by a Washington Post profile of him in which anonymous Time sources described him as a ``lightweight'' and not particularly popular with some of those who worked for him. Donovan, Ney, and William Kelly, former worldwide sales director for Time Inc., contradict that. Mr. Kelly, the retired publisher of Money magazine, says, ``He gets great loyalty from the people who work for him. When you need him, he's there. He's unflappable. You'd never know there are crises with Ralph; he takes all the burden himself; he handles it. He's very cool under fire.''

That sort of hang-tough self-confidence seems to come easy for a man whose closest friends describe him as a man's man. His old college chum from Stanford University, William Sarnoff, who made a cold, hard climb up Mt. Rainier with him, says, ``He's a wonderful guy to have on the other end of the rope.'' Mr. Sarnoff, chairman of Warner Publishing Inc., a division of Warner Communications, describes Davidson as ``very honorable, forthright.''

Another friend notes that Davidson was cool under the flak he received from some executives at Time Inc. for his early CIA experience, flak that came when the agency was under congressional investigation. Davidson says he worked for the CIA in covert operations in the Middle East-North African department. ``At the time I worked [there], working for the CIA was highly regarded,'' Davidson says. ``You were serving your country. ... I like serving my country. That's one of the reasons I took this job at Kennedy Center, because I looked at it in a sense of public service.''

Ralph Parsons Davidson was born in Santa Fe, N.M., but lost his father at 5 and was brought up in Los Angeles after his mother's remarriage. He was a surfer, president of his senior class at University High School, then president of the student body at Stanford, where he received a BA in international relations. After the Navy, he did a stint with the Marshall Plan in Europe before joining Time Inc. for a 34-year career.

Davidson, a registered Republican, has two sons - Will, 36, and Andy 32 - from his first marriage to Jeane Davidson. When he married former Texan Lou Hill, he also took on the role of father to her children - Ross, 19; Scott, 18; and Sydney, 11; they now have a fourth child, Mary Elizabeth, 3. Both Ralph and Lou Davidson's previous marriages had ended in divorce. They met at a New York dinner party given by the Sarnoffs, who told the reluctant Ms. Hill to show up ``because you're going to meet the man you're going to marry.''

An energy level that's `exasperating'

Right now the Davidsons are unpacking their lives in a handsome, rented Georgetown mansion filled with chintzes and art from the American West. Mrs. Davidson, a vivacious blonde with a face like a Sargent portrait, is a former Texas Christian University homecoming queen and a Democrat who worked for Lyndon Johnson in Washington. She is also a former elementary school teacher, who has worked quietly behind the scenes establishing an organization to aid homeless children.

She says of her husband, ``When he married me, the mother of three children, he not only took them on; he has risen to occasions for these kids that I don't think other fathers would.'' She mentions his compassion: ``Anytime there's an injustice, he becomes so activated he wants to find a way to right the injustice.'' Of Davidson, who may rise at 6 a.m., do errands, and play tennis before working till midnight, she says, ``There is an energy level that is exasperating.'' He relaxes with thrillers and western novels by Louis L'Amour.

Vernon Jordan Jr., another longtime friend and former chairman of the Urban League, found Davidson as a member of its board of trustees ``creative, energetic, committed, hard-driving. He's also caring and warm. I was in the hospital for 84 days [recovering from a gunshot attempt on his life], and he came a lot - sometimes said something, sometimes didn't, but he was there. That is a very human side of him.''

As Mrs. Davidson puts it, ``He's not a man's man; he's a human being's man.''

Second in an occasional series of profiles of influential figures in the arts. The first, an interview with Roger Stevens, was published May 23.