KEEPER OF THE RULES Congressman Howard W. Smith Of Virginia By Bruce J. Dierenfield University Press of Virginia. 306 pp. $25

WHEN I first saw Howard W. Smith, I wondered if he was senile. He looked very old as he slumped on a bench in the House of Representatives, and he gave the impression of not having the slightest idea of what was going on. That was 1956 and Judge Smith was 73.

It didn't take me long to learn that, at 73 or, for that matter, at 81 a few years later, this Virginia congressman was one of the brightest, shrewdest, hardest working and most powerful men on Capitol Hill. He was also a dinosaur, a 19th-century relic who had long been waging a losing battle to preserve a political and social system that could no longer exist.

Judge Smith was not widely known outside Washington. His profile was so low as to be non-existent. If the word "charisma" had ever been called to his attention, he would have waved it away as just another new-fangled notion.

His flamboyant acts were rare. One came 30 years ago this summer, when he slowed down the Eisenhower civil rights bill and killed an aid to education bill by disappearing for 10 days. He said later he just took a vacation. But everyone knew he had disappeared because the House couldn't act on any bill without a rule from his committee, and the committee couldn't meet unless its chairman called it together.

From his perch on that Rules Committee, he killed, watered down or delayed almost every progressive legislative program from the New Deal to the Great Society. He fought, and won, major struggles against Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, not to mention Speaker Sam Rayburn. He accomplished this, as Bruce J. Dierenfield makes clear in this book, not only by controlling the Rules Committee when it had more power than the speaker did, but by knowing more than anyone else did about both the rules and the individual legislative proposals.

He was against far more than he was for. In the '30s, he focused on blocking various New Deal programs. In the '40s, his main targets were labor unions and communists. In the '50s and '60s, he was a principal architect of legislative efforts to stop desegregation, block civil rights bills and curtail the power of the Supreme Court.

Dierenfield, an assistant professor of history at Canisius College, believes all this flows out of Smith's old-line Virginia family background and early life near Warrenton, Va. He writes that in the Virginia of Smith's youth, one's identity was defined by race, class and family, in that order; poor whites were no better off than blacks. Smith, in Congress, was as anti-labor and anti-immigrant as he was anti-civil rights.

DIERENFIELD follows Smith through his study of law at the University of Virginia, where he was taught the strictest possible construction of the Constitution. That document was, in Charlottesville at the turn of the century, merely a compact among still-sovereign states. Such a view squared nicely with Smith's predisposition in favor of a ruling aristocracy, limited voting rights and a sharply limited national government. That, of course, is the view of the Constitution that led in the 1950s and '60s to the violent confrontations at Little Rock, Oxford, Montgomery, and elsewhere. It was the view for which Smith provided the legislative plans, columnist James J. Kilpatrick the intellectual rationale, and George Wallace and Ross Barnett the ultimate "action."

This book is a useful reminder of how things were in Congress before the Rules Committee was bridled in 1961 and stripped of its almost total power in the '70s. It is as much an explanation of how power can be used (or abused, depending on your point of view) as it is a biography of Judge Smith. But it does contain an interesting account of Virginia politics. Smith, after all, did represent Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, etc., during most of his 36 years in Congress.

Other than slowing down, sometimes for years, bills on public housing, aid to education, fair labor standards and civil rights (he thought all such legislation was unconstitutional), Judge Smith left some major legislative accomplishments. One is the act that bears his name, which required the registration and fingerprinting of aliens and made talk of overthrowing the government a crime; the Supreme Court eventually gutted major portions of the Smith Act as unconstitutional. Another is a delicious example of miscalculation.

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was before the House, Judge Smith proposed an amendment to bar discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race. He did it to kill the bill. The House adopted it only because scores of "aye" votes were cast by opponents of civil rights. But to his and almost everyone else's amazement, Smith's amendment stayed in the bill. It now stands as a major milestone on the road to sexual equality. Also still standing is his comment at the time about his "tiny" amendment: the imbalance between the sexes deprived many women of their "right to a nice husband and family."

James E. Clayton is a former associate editor of The Washington Post who reported on the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.