JUST BEFORE Robert Vossler Keeley finished Princeton University, he appeared before the eminent reviewing board of Rhodes Scholars. Any other undergraduate would have been staid, sweaty and humble. But somewhere in the middle of this momentous intellectual exchange, Keeley lost his interest. And the panel, he recalls now from the comfortable distance of 30 years, heard him call the award's namesake, Cecil Rhodes, a racist and anti-feminist, rant a bit about the perpetuation of the British Empire, and intimate that the English Deparment of Cambridge University was better than Oxford.

For a young man yearning to carve out a reputation beside his literary favorites, Updike and Cheever, his admirable stand was rather pompus and reckless. A Rhodes was not to be his.

But for the man who is heading out for Zimbabwe -- the independent black-ruled nation that emerged out of Rhodes' 19th-century settlement and eventual unjust legacy in Southern Africa -- as the first U.S. ambassador, that incident is definitely a bonus. "That's not a bad credential to have -- now -- is it?" says Keeley, sitting in a lackluster State Department office, his waystation between deputy assistant secretary of state assignment and the ambassadorship.

Keeley, 50, has the full, ruddy athletic face of a Jack Dempsey, softened by kind, thoughtful eyes that belie the constant look of befuddlement on his face, yet support the self-assurance in hiw low voice. He goes to Zimbabwe with an almost universal reputation for tough, clear, decisive and sensitive actions and thought. Throughout his 22 years in the Foreign Service Keeley has built a reputation for outspokenness, a trait usually tempered, not nourished, by diplomacy, and one he has had to pay a price for. In Greece his service coincided with the military coup of 1967 and he strongly criticized U.S. support of the colonels' dictatorship. For the next seven years he wasn't promoted. "There is no question in my mind that my outspokenness was not appreciated," says Keeley, who eventually filed a grievance complaint at State and had his record, and observations of his wife's liberal political activities, removed.

Did he ever think of quitting? His quick response suggests that would have brought a scar of shame to the family. "My Irigh fighting instinct prevailed. I am not going to give in. The hell with that. That means they win, if I quit," he says.

His penchant for argument, however, has not diminished his allegiance to his job. When he was the chief American official in Uganda in 1973, working under constant threats from now-deposed dictator Idi Amin, Keeley directed the evacuation of all the Americans. This was his chore again two year later in Cambodia, as the country collapsed and Henry Kissinger espoused a policy he deplored. "Interesting places at interesting times," says Keeley, whose last overseas assignment was two years ago as ambassador to Mauritius. "The worst thing in my mind that could happen is boredom."

But his experience, hos his tempestuousness, sold him as the choice for one of the world's fast-changing political situations. He has a first-hand knowledge of the long and often painful struggle of new African nations, working in Mail one year after its independence. "He knows the players," as one of his State Department superiors put it, and would not be hotheaded about Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's swinging views of the West as Mugabe embraces, then criticizes.

"He's an idealist. He's one of those few people who has remained an idealist and can still function in the practice of foreign policy," says his brother Edmund Keeley, a Greek scholar and novelist at Princeton. Part of Keeley's motivation is tradition. His father, James Keeley, a foreign service officer, was what Bob Keeley calls, "an extremely outspoken advocate of the Arab point of view," three decades ago when the State Department was cool to Arab sympethizers. "One of the good things you can say about the Foreign Service is that Bob Keeley survived," says Clyde Ferguson, a former ambassador and now a Harvard University law professor.

And Bob Keeley, unlike Miss Otis, has no regrets. "I've never won the argument, I have never changed policy. But I would rather fight than resign," he says. He's a man very comfortable with his views and reputation. His whole manner reflects the directness of one who has faced danger and survived. Additionally, he has the reputation as an intrepid seaman and as the cocky professor of one of Foggy Bottom's most talked about assortment of club ties, the shamrocks, if you will, reserved for special occasions.

The post to Zimbabwe, the symbolic culmination of a major thrust of the Carter administration's foreign policy, is quite a plum. And the question is why Bob Keeley, who has spent the bulk of his State Department career on African issues but only joined the State Department's policy planning unit on Southern Africa 18 months ago. Inside the State Department, the close allies of Richard Moose, the deputy assistant Secretary of State for Africa, are pleased. Moose says, "diplomacy is in his blood. He's a particularly good man for a tight spot."

But the black officers, who as a group have been able to flex more muscle on this issue than any other in State's history, are more cautious about his sensitivities in what will be a pivotal time. "He is one of a legion of people who could go off and do a good piece of work. He wouldn't fall on his face," says one top-level State Department black. "But it's unfortunate in a place like Salisbury because you need someone special." Outside the administration those sentiments are shared by policy makers across the political spectrum. "I think he is going over with an open point of view. What we feared was getting a romantic leftist in that job and someone who doesn't believe in democracy," says a Capitol Hill supporter of the Ian Smith regime. "He's colorless," says one pivotal person in Washington foreign policy. "You would think the administration would want someone with a strong national stature."

Calling it the best job in the foreign service today, Keeley suppresses his schoolish excitement. He has already tested the waters of diplomacy in Zimbabwe. During the inauguration festivities, he relates, he was having dinner one night and a white Rhodesian woman sent over a bottle of wine. "There was no hostility and she knew we were the Americans," says Keeley. He doesn't tell the one about his deferred diplomatic success. On the same trip he learned that 40,000 Greeks live in Salisbury and he took a group off to a Greek restaurant. He approached a table, speaking the Greek he had learned first as a child. No one understood him. No one spoke Greek.

At Princeton they called him "Duke" because of his broad-shouldered stance and the blush his Irish ancestry and outdoor pursuits have given his craggy complexion. But the resemblance to the late John Wayne covered only physique, not politics.

Rumblings about his views started early. As a writer for the Daily Princetonian, he wrote an anonymous gossip column, signed "Philo" and accompanied by a picture of the back of his head and a telephone. When he was a senior and the chairman of the Princetonian board and a retired gossip columnist, the newspaper put out a joke issue. In his guest column Keeley quoted a guy who had joked about a rich alumni's gift of a wall around a campus eating club. "That's his last erection." Repercussions vibrated from the ivy lawns to the marble decorum of State, where at the time Keeley's father was chief diplomat to Syria.

"I am rather bitter about that whole experience," says Keeley. "I was put on probation, lost my scholarship, had to lose my job on the board, which when you are a senior is a profit-making venture. And it soured me on a journalistic career," says Keeley, who always wanted to be a writer and now has five books locked away.

But he never was just another Joe at Princeton. "His childhood had given him extra confidence and an air of sophistication," says Pete Lakeland, of the Senate foreign relations committee. "He's very bright but he doesn't show it off at all." Keeley was born in Beirut, Lebanon, one of his father's posts.

It was this intellectual air that attracted Louise Schoonmaker, a Smith College student, to give up her football star boyfriend for Keeley after a blind date. "I was immediately impressed.He was certainly brilliant and gregarious," Says Louise Keeley, a petite, white-haired woman, who described herself in her college years as a "non-serious party girl." Before meeting Keeley, she had also been a steady companion of writer J. D. Salinger during the time he was writing "Catcher in the Rye."

In 1956, after graduate school at Princeton and a term patrolling Delaware Bay for the Coast Guard, Keeley joined the foreign service over his father's warnings that being headstrong wouldn't reap many rewards. Keeley plunged into a number of difficult assignments. His first, Jordan, was a sharp baptism into rocket-fire diplomacy. There was a coup in neighboring Iraq and the British paratroopers and American marines were in Lebanon. "The last week I was in Jordan the prime minister was blown up in his office. I had an appointment in that building that same day but had canceled it. Now that's the kind of unexpected event that etches itself on your memory," recalls Keeley.

Jordan was the first time Louise Keeley learned the perils of separation. During the evacuation of the Americans, Louise Keeley was separated from her husband of seven years and lived with her mother-in-law in Palermo. "Mathilde Keeley taught me so much. She had been a committed, professional woman in her own right, for instance, working with refugees in Turkey after World War I," says Louise Keeley. From her direction Keeley learned to get involved with the country's welfare activities, as well as the social life. In Jordan she co-founded a charitable group, Save The Children.

Mali, their next post, severly restricted her internal activities. "Only with a few exceptions, like the appearance of [dancer] Pearl Primus, were we encouraged to interact with the local people," says Keeley.

In 1963 the family returned to Washington, where Keeley worked as one of two desk officers on the Congo, Burundi and Congo (Brazzaville). The tense situation in the region was a major thrust of the Kennedy administration and the top-level policy was handled by George Ball and W. Averell Harriman. Both men influenced Keeley. "They had a police chief in Congo (Brazzaville) who was arresting our people right and left. And AID official would show up to do a study and they would throw him in jail. After about three of those incidents, George Ball said, 'close the embassy, take our people out of there and tell them they can close their embassy here and go home.' There were arguments both ways, a big country picking on a little country. It wouldn't look good and Ball said, 'I can't help the size of the country. We have a principle here, a universal principle we have to stand by,'" says Keeley. His next appointment, after a year's sabattical at Stanford University, was to Greece. For 11 years he had been asking for Greece on his "April Fool" card, the diplomats yearly request list.

"Constant battle," is one way a slow-speaking, reflective Keeley explains the atmosphere of his term in Greece. "It's not good if you begin criticizing the policy the other people are following. They are the authors of those policies. They are committed." From his own conversations around Athens, he was very concerned about the effects of a coup. One evening he sat down to write a memo to an embassy superior, urging that they try to stop a coup by talking with both King Constantine and the military opposition. He locked the memo away, ending with the warning, "three weeks from now we might wake up to a military government." The coup occurred that night. "My son interrupted me in the shower saying, no school bus, no school, and you wouldn't have to go to work either because there are tanks rolling down the boulevard," recalls Keeley, laughing.

Once at a dinner party, he exploded at the strident disbelief of a wowan who kept insisting the colonels weren't torturing anyone. Keeley got so fed up that he rose from his chair and demonstrated the stories of torture he had heard by grabbing the woman's hair and saying," this is what they are doing." At this time his wife was friendly with some of the government opposition. "The only thing I ever feared was the Greek secret police finding my phone book and thinking all those people were a resistance group," she says. Earlier, during Keeley's sabattical year at Stanford University, she had joined some anti-war activities.

What she saw as the staunch conservatism of some of the Embassy personnel infuriated Louise Keeley. "Some of the women were less than liberal. On the day of the King assassination I was taking a group to do something for CARE. I was crying and all they said was 'He shouldn't have gotten involved in Vietnam.' They had the same reaction when Robert Kennedy was shot."

In Greece the Keeleys and their two children, Michal, now 26, and Christopher, now 22, had more than just political adventure. One day Keeley took nine people out of his 29 foot Trident, stopped on an island in the Aegean, had a quiet swim and pastoral lunch, and then headed back. A storm came up, the sailboat ran out of gas, and Keeley, the only sailor on board, couldn't get the main sail up. "I had to sail alone for nine hours, the waves lapping over, everyone huddled below in their life jackets," recalls Keeley. "and the irony was that I was trying to impress my new boss."

On a scorching July day in 1973, Idi Amin ordered 110 Peace Corps volunteers detained because he thought they were mercenaries. In face he had said that the plane was to be shot down if it left Entebbe Airport for its destination in Zaire. Keeley, as head of the mission, went to negotiate with the military guards and was ordered to leave "within five minutes." or he would be shot. "After I got back in my car, I called the foreign minister and complained. We ended up using President Mobutu of Zaire as a character witness for the volunteers," recalls Keeley, telling the incident without any personal embellishment.

"Those were the worst 52 hours I ever spent," says Keeley. Within a two year span Robert Keeley put his life on the line, safely evacuating American personnel from Uganda and Cambodia.

For ten months Keeley was the point man for deteriorating U.S. -- Uganda relations. Before the U.S. Ambassador was recalled, after a series of sacrcastic, nasty letters from Amin to Richard Nixon, Keeley had been in charge. He had supervised the investigation into the deaths of an American journalist and Peace Corps worker. As a result it was the first time the Amin government admitted guilt in a foreigner's death and made settlements to the families. "Then after the murder of the American ambassador in Khartoum, I decided we wouldn't work there. Amin had supported the Palestinian action and we just didn't have the support of the local government," recalls Keeley. "So I sent in an unemotional message to the State department that we were leaving and they sent in an inspector to see if I had gone off my rocker."

In October 1973 Amin called Keeley in and told him he was kicking out the Marines. Over the next few weeks Keeley had all the Americans leave one by one or in small groups. On Nov. 10, 1973, he and two other officials burned the last papers and Keeley took a note for Amin to the foreign minister saying he was leaving. The night the last three Americans left coincided with around the world with a dance. Keeley dressed in his black tie and tuxedo so he could go straight to the ball in Kampala.

Cambodia brought constant bombings, death threats, and political uncertainties. Keeley, whose security code name was "Locker Room," says, "generally it wasn't a frightening experience." He was the second man to John Gunther Dean, the ambassador, and Keeley's house was guarded.Eventually he had to move his bedroom out of range and earshoot of Khmer Rouge rockets. When he needed medical treatment for a bleeding ulcer, he was hospitalized and his room was surrounded by military guards. Plus there was the psychic pain of being involved in a war and foreign policy to which he was flatly opposed.

"I thought if I didn't go, I was chicken," says Keeley. "Dean persuaded me that he needed someone he could trust to run the embassy and mission while he did the diplomacy." In his conversations there's a strong residue of a hell of a way to leave a country. I consider it the low point of my diplomatic career," says Keeley.

In "Sideshow," the book by journalist William Shawcross, he quotes Keeley as saying, "one day, Henry Kissinger will write his memories. And we will all go out and buy them. And there will be a chapter on Cambodia. And I will write a footnote on every page."

Right now Keeley wouldn't elaborate on his views of Cambodia but will eventually write about that experience. "I do produce something book-length about every five years," he says. In his much-battered trunks, Keeley has five books, one his account of the coup in Greece and the American policy of the time, another a novel about public opinion polsters. His brother, Edmund, relies on him to read his manuscripts. Keeley is game for the unusual, contributing to a famous people's cook book his recipe for egg salad sandwiches, and raising rare birds he became fond of in Mauritius.

For almost two years the issues of southern Africa have consumed his attention. Generally, as the most crucial points of U.S. policy toward the old Rhodesia were hammered out and the future seemed suspended around the Anglo-American plan, Keeley earned a good reputation. "He's straightforward and reliable," says Capitol Hill Africa specialist. "At the time we were considering the question of sanctions at the time of the internal agreement, we had the administration chiefs up for hearings. The first day Dick Moose and Andrew Young spoke for three hours and neither one of them defined the administration's policy. The next day Keeley was there and said plainly that the administration was neutral. That's what we needed, a direct statement that clarified the issue."

What happens in Zimbabwe will influence the rest of southern Africa, as South Africa and Namibia face the question of black-majority rule. "Keeley is a particularly right person in a difficult transition. It's sensitive because of the conflicting pressures on Robert Mugabe, as he tries to rebuild and satisfy the internal and external factions," says Moose.

Keeley's very optimistic about the future of Zimbabwe. "I just think it's going to work," says Keeley. He has met twice with Robert Mugabe, the freedom fighter who won the elections in early March. "He impressed me as highly intelligent, well-educated and the most articulate African leader I've ever met . . . He had an extremely rich country to work with. It has a terrific infrastructure, both agricultural and industrial. And a highly-educated population with more university graduates than any other African country except South Africa . . . And he is a very moderate person and I think it has been a mistake to focus on his Marxism. He says he has learned as much from his Christian upbringing as from his Marxist reading.

"To me its the most interesting place in Africa today . . . It's obviously personally satisfying when a problem reaches a point of resolution to continue with it. Back here it's not going to be that interesting. The job is done."