THOSE MOST deeply involved in the shaping of their times make the worst historians.

If you had told Napoleon that he was the father of nationalism, he would doubtless have replied, "Well, I don't know about that, but you should have seen us coming up out of the fog at Austerlitz, and wasn't I something else on the bridge at Lodi?"

Joseph L. Rauh Jr. will wince to see himself in the same sentence with Napoleon. But it's true: Ask him a general question, and he'll tell you an anecodote.

Rauh, a founder of Americans for Democratic Action, has been called the embodiment of the American liberal. He's the guy who wrote the historic minority of civil rights plank in the 1948 Democratic platform (and therefore, some would say, the man who invented Hubert Humphrey). He's the guy who led the fight for the 1960 Kennedy civil rights platform, who helped clean up the rival-delegation mess at other conventions, who defended playrights Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman, who was the influential counsel for Walter Reuther's United Auto Workers through the tough '50s, who has been for a whole generation a voice -- not still and small, but loud and sometimes abrasive -- of the American political conscience.

"He's the white liberal," someone said, "that the blacks had in mind when they broke loose to form the black power movement."

Rauh likes that. "That's what we were fighting for," he says. "Can die happy because they're their own leaders now. Felix Frankfurter (whose law clerk Rauh was) was a founder of the NAACP in 1909. It's wonderful they don't need us now. There are 60 blacks on the board now, and four of us whites. Though I wish they'd listen a little more to the old man . . . "

He chuckles. He loves to talk. Ask him about the time he got thrown out of the postmortem meeting on the firing of Andrew Young from the U.N.:

"Just after it happened I got a telegram inviting me to a black leaders' meeting in New York the next morning. I wasn't sure about this so I called Robert Hooks and got his assistant who assured me I was invited.

"But I still wasn't convinced I was really wanted, so I called Kenneth Clark, a friend of mine, and he said, 'You got to come, Joe, we need you badly.' So I went up there, and I was standing around talking to people, when this guy comes up and says the leadership of the meeting thinks I shouldn't be there. I showed him my telegram, and Hooks and Clark and I went into the next room."

The problem, it developed, was that if Rauh were publicly rejected, "half the place will leave with you," and then the media story would be Rauh, and not Young's firing, the real issue.

"Hooks said there'd be a lot of crazies in the meeting. I asked him if as executive vice president of the NAACP it would be in the interests of civil rights for me not to go into that room, and he said yes. I said okay."

So Rauh sat in the anteroom, and others brought him progress reports. reports. "It's just that the meeting was so anti-white that my presence would cause trouble. The sad thing is that we had reached that stag stage. However, I feel we can get together again. It's a fight in a marriage, not a divorce."

The reason for his exclusion was not so much his being white, some observers remarked later, as for his being Jewish.

Still, race was partly the problem, dating, it is said, from black rage at the Bakke decision.

"I felt it was very unfortunate," commented Clarence Mitchell, Rauh's comrade in NAACP leadership for at least 28 years. "The NAACP has never drawn a color line on anything, and Joe's a board member. He showed real statesmanship and charity, I thought. If I'd been there I'd not have stayed. I think the issue would never have escalated so far out of proportion if it hadn't been such an attractive way of getting on TV."

Some of the people at that meeting weren't even born yet when Joe Rauh was picketing the National Theater in 1947 because it didn't allow blacks. Several groups took turns picketing (his was Friday night) despite threats of redneck violence. The pickets closed the place for months.

Then there were the sit-ins at restaurants and other public spots in Washington. And the time in 1951 when Rauh represented Philip Randolph, the great black union leader, trying to join an all-white association of railway executives for which he was eligible.

"We sued 'em and won, of course, and we went to the suite in the old Hamilton Hotel. They were sitting around and didn't invite us to sit. That was okay for me, but imagine: Randolph, there is this beautiful, dignified old man and we were standing there against the wall.

"And the president of the railway clerks, George Harrison, says, 'Randolph (no Mister), it'll cost you so much to belong. You have the money? Yes. We weet every once so often. Yes. Well, that will conclude our business.' They dismissed us, and we went outside and stood on the northeast corner of 14th and K, and I said, 'Mr. Randolph, we should have a drink to celebrate.' He said, 'Well, Mr. Raw (he never did get my name straight), where can we go?'

"I told him, either to my house or to Union Station. He looked at me and after awhile he said, 'Mr. Raw, we have just had a symbolic drink. I bid you goodnight.'"

There are not many blacks in the ADA. It's a disappointment to him. "Still some social barriers," he mutters, recalling the time he debated the Bakke case at his temple only to be attacked by a woman who fumed, "We've done enough for THEM!" He shouts the line bitterly, for it is exactly this attitude that he has been confronting all his life.

"The basic problem with '76 (a number which in Rauh-ese stands for the Carter election) was that many who were in it allegedly on an idealistic basis backed out. The idealism crumbled: that's the explanation of Carter. After the liberals lost in '68 and got the s - - t kicked out of us in '72, they got hungry."

At one debate he met a young party worker who had sweated in the vineyards for Gene McCarthy and McGovern, and he threw his arms around the young man. So glad you're back in the fight, he said.

"Oh no, Joe," the guy replied, "I've got to be with the winner."

"Maybe," Rauh adds as he tells the story, "it's asking too much to ask human beings to turn their liberalism into an idealism which doesn't further their self-interest."

You don't find a 68-year-old idealist around every corner these days. Perhaps there were more of them in 1946, after World War II, when it was still fun to be a liberal. In those days the big question was how to be liberal without being Communist, and in that year theologian Reinhold Niebuhr brought together some of his friends.

"There was Reinie and Jim Loeb and Jimmy Wechsler, who was an ex-Communist, and Art Schlesinger and me. I was probably the least skilled in politics of them all at the time. We were the NCL, The Non-Communist Left."

A year later Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt and two of her children enlarged the group to 144 people -- what commentator Elmer Davis called the "government in exile," this being in Harry Truman's conservative early period -- and called it the ADA, offering a liberal alternative to the Communists and to Henry Wallace.

Mrs. Roosevelt was their heroine, Rauh recalls. "She had such a sense of what had to be done. She set me fundraising right away, and I went to David Dubinsky of the garment workers union, and he pledged $5,000, and that's how it started. She was a practical potato from the beginning."

Never large in terms of numbers, ADA was always a leadership organization, running close to 60,000 members ("a little better today because of Kennedy"), and a force to be dealt with at every election. Many democratic politicians understand the need to score fairly high on ADA's line but they hate to fit the perfect ADA silhouette.

As for Ted Kennedy, who comes very close to the silhouette, Rauh feels that ADA is of less use to him than he is to them. "He brings practical possibilities to liberalism. The hardest thing is if you get a conservative Democrat for president. He's the head of your party, so you're kind of boxed in. You can't sock it to him as you could a Republican president.

"I presume Kennedy won't run as a 100 percent ADA-er. It would be stupid to expect that. If he has to make compromises, we have to understand."

And what would that mean, a 100 percent ADA-er? Or, put another way, what is a liberal? ADA's 1950 constitution asserts, "We believe that rising living standards and lasting peace can be attained by democratic planning, enlargement of fundamental cooperation. We believe that all forms of totalitarianism, including communism, are incompatible with these objectives . . . "

Rauh, profoundly uncomfortable with generalities, merely says that the liberal sees government as a means of helping those who can't help themselves. It is the familiar argument that we need Big Government to defend us from Big Business. (The phrase "democratic planning" seems to be a euphemism for federal programs.)

Ask Joe Rauh if the American liberal is obsolete, and his bow tie jiggles indignantly. He comes back with a list of issues and incidents where the liberal view triumphed. Press him, and he talks about Carter's lack of ideology.

Some of his colleagues, notably David Cohen, president of Common Cause, an old friend and former ADA-er, would come up with an analysis of the problem: liberals "whose last hurrah with the old FDR coalition was with Humphrey in '68" must figure out a way to enlist the antigovernment forces which so far they have abandoned to single-issue mavericks like Howard Jarvis. They must quit relying on ever-bigger government as the stock answer and deal with "the new constituencies, the conservationists and consumers, and new positions, like deregulation and the citizen right to safety from crime, which we've left to the conservatives for a decade . . . "

But this is not Rauh's style. He has been family praised as "a master tactician," and maybe that's not such a bad thing after all, in a time when grand statements of purpose draw only scowls, hoots and yawns.