Halfway through the interview, the photographer asked The New York Times' distinguished Harrison Salisbury to button down his collar wings, which were curling up in a rather dashing way. As he complied, he said something into his necktie that just might be the ultimate comment on the nature of the born journalist.

"Well," he muttered, "you gotta be a little disheveled. . ."

And you do: You can never be one of the smooth people of the world because, more often than not, they're the ones you are trying to write about.

The most famous Harrison Salisbury story is about the time he was put on the city desk after winning a Pulitzer in 1955 for his coverage of Russia. Some said the move was a classic putdown by jealous chairbound editors. Some said he was being reminded that he was, after all, a cog.

Right away, he got the Garbage Assignment, a periodic check on the state of New York's streets, normally handled by a cub with one phone call. Salisbury did not blow up. He did not quit. He dug into the story for six weeks and came up with a four-part series on the fantastic and fascinating empire that copes with the city's daily acres of garbage. Like many Salisbury stories, this one rose above its subject to become a comment on our disposable society.

Mind you, he is not literally disheveled. He dresses austerely, even elegantly. It is the point of view that is not smooth.

He has made a habit of getting into places he wasn't supposed to be. It started by chance in 1949, when he was trying to move from United Press to The Times but the only opening was in Moscow, where the bureau hadn't been manned for nearly two years owing to the Cold War. He wrote and cabled everyone he could think of, and about that time the paper ran an open letter to Stalin suggesting a thaw. The reply was a visa for Salisbury.

To prepare himself, he conquered the shyness that had nagged him since his old-family upbringing in Minneapolis, and also gave up drinking. Later he quit smoking too.

Over the years he wangled his way into Romania, Bulgaria, Albania ("terrible place, I got out as fast as I possible could"), Mongolia, Hungary, North Korea, Cambodia and finally -- his masterpiece -- North Vietnam.

It was close to Christmas 1966, when the garbled wire came through promising him entry to Hanoi. This was a time when America was escalating the war almost daily, and paranoiaa ran high. He took off from Paris still lacking a transit visa to Cambodia, going only on the vague assurance that it would be there when he arrived.

At that, he had to wait in the Phnom Penh airport sipping a Coke while officials drove into town (the phone wasn't working) and got his visa.

His stories out of Hanoi, the first by an American journalist, refuted much of what the Pentagon had been telling the American public and won him same snarls from hardliners. The same thing had happened when he was writing from Moscow, and being censored. He set that right with his "Russia ReViewed" series which ran after his return home.

"Oh yes, we knew about the gulags in '49," he said on a visit here to promote his latest book, "Without Fear or Favor: An Uncomppromising Look at The New York Times."

"But not directly. I had many friends from the war years with United Press, when we all stayed at the Metropole Hotel, and it was a convivial time. But when I went back in '49. I looked up my old friends, and they wouldn't answer the phone or nod in the street. And I realized that it was totally dangerous for them, so I quit trying."

People on the fringes of the diplomatic colony in Moscow, the house servants and secretaries one hired knowing full well that they were planted, would customarily work about six months and them would be arrested.

"The Soviets figured that by then we would have turned them around. It happened every day. It's how they think about people."

One recalls Solzhenitsyn's account of how the Russian POWs, returning from German camps after World War II, were packed off to Siberia on the assumption that they must have turned traitor.

Once in Leningrad, told he would have to leave town that night but wanting to stay on a week or so, Salisbury dropped the name of an old pal, Mayor Popov. The reaction was what he had hoped for: widened eyes, paling cheeks, slackened jaw.

But he was wrong. Popov had been executed just two weeks earlier. The name was definitely the wrong one to drop. Salisbury left town as directed.

As an action addict who has been everywhere and seen everything, the 71-year-old Salisbury has a lot to say about journalism, its importance in an apathetic world ("don't think it's just America that's apathetic; you see it all over, even in Russia"), its temptation to wield its power for itself.

"As I see it, we came out of the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the CIA investigation and those other stories with enormous power. For the first time we were really exerting our constitutional rights. But we still don't know where we came out.

"We have a mission of finding out what the hell is going on and where we are heading. No one understands what's going on."

Just as we, with our political divisions, see Russia as a monolith, so the Russians, with their bickering hard-hats and moderates, look to us for coherent policies.

"They are more comfortable when people act as they expect 'em to act. That's why Carter baffles them."

Salisbury is worried about our forced dependence on machines. He talks about the false alarms we have had from our computers on Soviet attacks and wonders how many other near-misses we have never been told about.

"And if you think that's bad, what about the Russians? Their technology is way behind ours. What if their computers make a mistake?"

His new book, 630 pages of history, anecodote and a careful reconstruction of the Pentagon Papers story, is, he said, a metaphor (or perhaps a parable) on the problems facing journalism today and the decisions it must make on where the critic leaves off and the actor begins.

"Quintessentially," he writes in his introduction, "it is the story of an unending and imperfect search for truth; of a struggle against what the poet Robert Bly once called the 'American system of hypocrisy,' the seamless belt of lies . . ."

Well, his collar was buttoned down all right, but now his tie was slipping around to his jugular. He still looked . . . what? Untamed?