Two days before he was rushed to the hospital with an overdose of Valium, Robert C. McFarlane got a telephone call from an old friend, suggesting that the two of them take their wives to dinner together one night soon.
In retrospect, the friend said Wednesday, President Reagan's former national security adviser might have sounded a little weary.
"How is it going?" the friend asked.
"Come on, McFarlane, how are you, really?"
"I'm OK, OK."
The friend suggested that they sit down and have a talk about the whole Iran- contra affair that has had McFarlane in the headlines for more than three months.
He was willing.
"Sure," he said, "we will sometime."
In the aftermath of his apparent suicide attempt Monday, McFarlane's stunned friends have been trying to fathom what might have overcome the former Marine lieutenant colonel, who possessed a far-flung reputation for unflappability.
In retrospect, some say they saw signs that the pressure was getting the better of him. "The tension has been in his face lately," one friend said Wednesday. "There has been a strain for a long time. I guess it just finally got to the poor bastard."
Another friend, who has spent hours with him since the uproar began in November, said, "Bud felt very isolated. He felt very lonely. He felt drawn and quartered by all these pressures and his own feeling of responsibility for letting the Iranian (arms) sale go forward in the first instance."
Severe Back Pains
Those feelings, plus severe back pains for which he had been given the prescription for Valium, "all added up," in this friend's view, producing a feeling of despair and prompting him to swallow as many as 30 of the tranquilizer pills.
Wednesday, he remained hospitalized at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, listed in good condition. There was no indication of when he would be released.
When a rescue squad was summoned by McFarlane's wife to their home before 8 a.m. Monday, a presidential panel investigating the functioning of the National Security Council staff as a result of the Iran-contra affair was preparing to question McFarlane--one of the architects of the Administration's ill-fated arms sale scheme--about testimony it had received in recent days from Manucher Ghorbanifar, an international arms merchant who was a middlemen in the fiasco.
Because his scheduled appearance was only hours away when McFarlane was rushed to the hospital, there was speculation that the impending examination might have precipitated the evident attempt on his own life.
Old Friends on Panel
But friends who talked with McFarlane recently said he apparently was not overly concerned about the session. In the appearance before the Tower Commission, McFarlane was to be questioned by two of the people who had contributed to his rise to the top ranks of the U.S. national security Establishment--former Sen. John Tower and retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the White House national security adviser during the Gerald R. Ford Administration.
While still in the Marine Corps, McFarlane had worked for Scowcroft in the White House. After retiring from the service, he had gone to work for Tower on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
His social and professional friends suggested that he has been increasingly burdened by pressures arising for other reasons.
Chief among them were his being alone in asserting that President Reagan gave oral approval for the shipment of TOW missiles from Israel to Iran in the summer of 1985, a crucial early step in the secret arms sale progression; and concern that the Iranian initiative, which failed to obtain the release of all the American hostages in Lebanon and damaged American foreign policy, has wrecked his new career as a national security consultant.
There were also looming questions from congressional investigators about conflicts between his account of the Iran operation and information in key documents unearthed in the investigations.
Leonard Garment, McFarlane's attorney, said pressures on him from the press and from various investigators had become "immense."
"When you take a man who has a soldier's sense of duty, a very high moral code, a deep love of country, and who's spent his whole life in public service, you have a structure that's bound to be under a lot of very intense strain."
To members of Congress, journalists and those who had seen him on television, the 49-year-old McFarlane presented the picture of a confident, supremely controlled man whose monotone concealed anger, frustration, satisfaction or surprise with equal facility.
As the national security adviser from 1983 to December, 1985, he regularly spoke to the press on a not-for-attribution basis about urgent foreign policy and national security topics and earned a reputation as one of the most adept and most boring briefers in Washington.
But the McFarlane out of the public eye was described by one longtime associate, who asked not to be identified, as a man who sometimes disclosed a surprisingly emotional side.
'I've Seen Him Cry'
"I've seen him happy, I've seen him cry and I have seen him yell," said the friend. "I heard him yell at Kenneth Adelman, the director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, in a way that would curl your hair."
Many who knew McFarlane when he worked on Capitol Hill considered him "rigid," or "mission-oriented,"--in the words of one acquaintance--a climber who was always "trying to scale a wall that kept getting higher the more he climbed."
And, whether he succeeded or failed, he kept things to himself. His instinct to keep his own counsel was appreciated, as evidenced by the fact that he was called back into the Iran operation after he had resigned from the White House staff.
As an outside Administration representative, he flew to Tehran in a now infamous May, 1986, mission to try to negotiate hostage releases with the Iranians. And he continued to have a machine in his home with which he could receive classified communications from the National Security Council.
Besides his tendency to "internalize" his problems, friends suspect that McFarlane labored under unusual pressures throughout his tour at the National Security Council.
The national security adviser's job at the White House has been for years increasingly sensitive and ever more demanding.
"It is an enormously stressful position in any White House," said a former presidential aide. "Just how stressful depends upon the President, and how well (the security adviser) gets on with people at the State Department and the Defense Department."
"My guess is that, in this Administration, it has been damn tough, for you have the continuous differences between (Secretary of State) George Shultz and (Defense Secretary) Caspar Weinberger. Then, you have a President who is so disengaged from detail that it is impossible to take splits (in opinion) to him and get a resolution.
"It's no accident that his Administration is already on its fifth national security adviser since they came into office."
McFarlane left the White House after apparently intractable differences with Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan. According to friends, he found the disengagement difficult.
Joined 'Think Tank'
He moved into the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a conservatively oriented "think tank" affiliated with Georgetown University where a long line of former officials of Republican administrations have paused to think and write.
But, with an entire career spent inside the military or the government, he yearned to stay publicly involved in national security policy. Last fall, he organized a group of the country's top arms control experts to meet periodically, reflect on leading issues in the field and perhaps break new ground in understanding strategic security.
His group included Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), now chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Rep. Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; former Defense Secretaries James R. Schlesinger and Harold Brown, Scowcroft and Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), a former White House chief of staff.
The group had only met once when disclosure of McFarlane's secret May, 1986, trip to Iran with a shipment of arms touched off the first investigation, which quickly disclosed the diversion of money from the arms deal to anti-Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua.
Tower Probe Ending
McFarlane, in light of his condition, may not testify before the Tower Commission. Its investigation is expected to be completed this month.
But with two major congressional investigations looming, investigators are eager to question him about the inconsistencies raised by testimony given to the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence.
Without identifying them, Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), the committee chairman, has described them as "strange."
The Intelligence Committee's report, recently released, showed several apparent discrepancies in McFarlane's testimony:
--McFarlane testified that he would have shied away from a U.S. arms pipeline to Iran if he had known Israel had already been making shipments. The CIA, he said, had told him nothing of the Israeli connection. Documents showed, however, that McFarlane's first cable to Secretary of State Shultz on the subject in July, 1985, said it was obvious that the Israeli-Iran connection had existed for some time.
North Briefing Cited
--McFarlane denied repeatedly that he had anything to do with the Iran operation between the time he resigned as national security adviser in December, 1985, and the time he was summoned to make his secret trip to Iran. But the Senate committee report said he had been briefed on the project in February by Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, a National Security Council official who has been fired for his role in the affair.
--He denied knowing anything before December, 1985, about Ghorbanifar, who was promoting the idea of an arms sale, but he mentioned him in a cable to Shultz the previous July.
In spite of such examples, McFarlane's supporters contend that he is the only figure involved in the whole affair who has been forthright.
"I don't normally vouch for the credibility of my clients," Garment, his attorney, said Wednesday, "but, in Bud's case, I'd make an exception."
Staff writer Jim Schachter contributed to this story.