THE PERSONAL VIEWS of Clarence Pendleton Jr., the chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, are generally so offensive to traditional civil rights groups that he has been called the "James Watt of the civil rights movement."

That leaves Pendleton, who is accustomed to being at odds with his public, undaunted. Of his many controversies, he especially remembers one at the 1980 Urban League convention, when an interviewer asked Pendleton, then head of the Urban League's San Diego affiliate, his opinion of a speech then-candidate Ronald Reagan had just delivered. "I said, 'Reagan gave us a new blueprint for freedom.' Well, Wendell Wilkie Gunn now a member of the White House staff was upstairs shaving, watching the speech, and he said, 'Someone crazy's on the tube.' "

Using his street talk for emphasis, Pendleton says, "I puts down my money and I takes my choice."

That's the essence of Pendleton, 52, a man quick on the offensive or defensive, working the sides and the middle, delivering one-liners while holding firm to his remedies for discrimination, even when tempers are flaring. He has been on the firing line since his appointment last November and his confirmation in April. He now ranks as a wild card in the heated struggle over civil rights.

In its first two years, the Reagan administration has been accused of insensitivity to minority concerns and had been accused of attempting a rollback of the hard-won equal rights progress of the last 20 years. The administration, with its tone set principally by the Justice Department, opposes mandatory busing and employment quotas. It argues that discrimination has to be intentional to be illegal. Pendleton shares the belief that forced busing for desegregation is wrong and says, "Affirmative action is a bankrupt policy."

On two important issues, however, the granting of tax exemptions to racially discriminatory private schools and the White House's slow endorsement of extension of the Voting Rights Act, Pendleton has opposed and prodded the administration.

Yet, many civil rights veterans are barely civil to Pendleton. In its 25-year history the commission, which often has been called the "conscience of civil rights," has had only two chiefs, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University, and Arthur Fleming, a former Cabinet officer. Yet the NAACP testified against Pendleton's confirmation, and many of his former colleagues from the Urban League, as well as present Civil Rights commissioners and staff members, are reluctant to discuss him publicly. Some feel he is ammunition for what is perceived as the administration's target practice against civil rights.

"Unfortunately, he has become an outspoken advocate for the regressive policies of the Reagan administration, and they seek to restrict the progress of minorities and women," says Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Neas and others point out that after a discussion with Pendleton, Attorney General William French Smith was able to say, "Mr. Pendleton has pointed out that it is not a violation of civil rights to be cutting social programs." That was the opposite conclusion of a commission study. Pendleton retorts, "Some people think the civil rights movement can only happen one way."

Pendleton is everywhere -- debating Angela Davis, the radical theorist who symbolized black militant thought a decade ago, appearing on the early-morning and late-night news,having lunch with Mike Wallace and Art Buchwald at Maison Blanche. Pendleton wants to be taken seriously, wants his conservative views incorporated as a new and legitimate social wave. "He's determined to make an impact, he has a competitive drive," says John Wilks, a Washington business and political consultant. Nonetheless, at a speech he gave recently to federal equal opportunity officers, a dozen walked out.

What about his first year? "Almost a year, seems like a hundred," Pendleton says, laughing. But negative reactions are not new. In San Diego, where he was one of the city's most visible black leaders, his political views frequently were challenged and he underwent tough public scrutiny when local Urban League members accused him of fiscal mismanagement. When he talks, the voice of this stocky, affable man echoes through a meeting room at the Civil Rights Commission, just like a defense lawyer warming up a jury. "The irony of it all is that I am the same guy. I didn't just change my spots."

Pendleton, who was once best-known in Washington for a successful coaching career at Howard University, has other forums besides the part-time chairmanship of the commission. He is president of the New Coalition for Economic and Social Change, a black conservative group that works with the Heritage Foundation, and president of the San Diego County Local Development Corporation, as well as chairman of the San Diego Transit Corporation. While the lines of his different jobs are clear, his views often are not.

So when Pendleton says, "the best way to help poor folks is not to be one," or describes some federal social programs as "neo-reparations" -- whether he is speaking as the Civil Rights Commission chairman or not -- civil rights advocates get worried. They fear he is weakening the commission's credibility and moving it away from its role as a nonpartisan, fact-finding agency. U.S. Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), chairman of the civil rights subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, sent Pendleton a letter last month asking him if his speeches were his personal views or represented a change in commission policy.

"His view that opportunity is there if people take advantage -- either this is an extremely naive position or he is a narrow ideologue," says Neas of the Leadership Conference. Pendleton's positions, the administration's nominations of three inexperienced commissioners (which were sent back to the White House by the Senate), and presidential counselor Ed Meese's reported characterization of the commission as a "nuisance," also concerns some of the civil rights leadership. The accumulation, says Althea Simmons, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau, "is chipping away at the commission's power and credibility. The fact that he Pendleton is trying to change the commission represents to me a clear and present danger."

In addition to his views, his public persona as an ally of the political right has puzzled some people. "The Clarence Pendleton I knew as head of the San Diego Urban League is not the same one I read about as head of the Civil Rights Commission," says Vernon Jordan, former national president of the Urban League. "His advocacy, his style, it is different. It's almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." His blunt switch, for example, from believing in federal assistance for social programs -- Pendleton worked with Model Cities programs in Baltimore and San Diego -- to advocating abandoning government support for the private sector has struck others.

"A lot of what Clarence believes gets lost in the way he says it. He speaks in provocative terms, largely characterized by anger. He is trying to say that some of the things we have done over the years require some reexamination, but it doesn't come out like that," says William Johnson, who is president of the Rochester, N.Y., Urban League and has known Pendleton for 20 years. "It sounds like he is from Mars."

Those who don't like Pendelton describe him as unpredictable, abrasive, inflammatory and opportunistic. Others feel Pendleton is an example of a new leadership style. "He's independent-minded, representing the new breed of black executive," says Samuel Cornelius, a Washington businessman. "To a large extent, some of the civil rights leaders believe making a profit is evil, but we can relate the civil rights sector to the economic sector. That's a new look."

Pendleton switched to the Republican Party at age 42, deciding that power and profit were more common to the GOP than the Democrats. Yet, in most of his civil rights stands he is even apart from the traditionally more liberal black Republicans. "I don't consider myself a black Republican. I am a Republican who happens to be black. I didn't become part of the party to be in the auxiliary," he says.

Pendleton likes risks and enjoys the debate. He can be personable, crusty and short-tempered. He has walked out of dinners and meetings if he wasn't acknowledged or greeted properly. Some have tried to smooth out the rough edges. When Pendleton used a four-letter word in a magazine interview, Vernon Jordan called him and told him it was unbecoming. Answers Pendleton,"The heat don't bother me. The hell with the heat. The little people call and say 'keep going.' Corporate America calls and says, 'keep going.' "

On the other hand, Steven Rhodes, a special assistant to the president, thinks Pendleton has a special adaptability to situations. "He is everything Rudyard Kipling talked about in his poem 'If' . . . walking with kings and princes, and not losing the common touch. He can come out of a meeting with the president, then talk to the brothers on the corner."

Yet Pendleton still becomes annoyed when the question of his historical status as the first black head of the Civil Rights Commission is raised. "I am not the chairman of the Black Civil Rights Commission. There is no Separate-But-Equal Civil Rights Commission in this country . . . So if blacks want to put me under siege . . . "

For more than half of his life, Pendleton, who was born in Louisville, has lived in Washington. He grew up in Deanwood and around Howard University and attended public schools. His only goal was to follow his father as the swimming coach at Howard.

When Pendleton talks about the discipline, mettle and vision of his early life, he talks about underpinnings. He was surrounded by the excellence of black institutions, from St. Augustine's College, where his maternal grandfather studied, to the family church, Washington's St. Luke's Episcopal, where a great-uncle was a rector and Pendleton served as an altar boy for 15 years, to Dunbar High School and Howard. From his paternal grandfather, who finished Howard Law in 1896, to Pendleton's son, now a junior at the university, four generations of Pendletons have attended Howard.

Segregation is recalled without much bitterness. "It was not the kind of segregation that taught you that all white folks were evil," says Pendleton. "It was a kind of education that prepared you for the future, whatever that might be."

In their separate world, his parents' circle built protection. Through the Howard associations, Pendleton stepped into a clan of achievers. " . . . the juniors, as we were called. Mordecai Johnson Jr., Russell Dixon Jr., Julian Cook Jr., Rupert Clark Jr.," explains Pendleton. Their fathers were among the firsts that were part of the sociology of Dubois and Frazier and the fiction of Wright and Hughes.

Their offspring hoped only to match them.

At the Banneker Recreation Center on Georgia Avenue NW, this world had its own country club. And Pendleton was known as a "zoomer." "A zoomer meant that you zoomed in every day and didn't pay," remembers Pendleton. His father coached at Howard and worked for the colored recreation division and was a lifeguard at Banneker. The senior Pendleton played in the orchestra pit at the Republic Theater to pay his way through Howard and used to tell his son, "If you don't think, you will stink."

Though segregation kept the younger Pendleton out of swim meets in Washington, the first negative racial experience Pendleton felt deeply occurred during World War II. "It was at the black pool at Fort Belvoir, meaning, they let the blacks swim on the last day of the month before they dumped it out," explains Pendleton. At one water show there, "this white guy passed by and made a comment about black goons and my father stopped the show, packed up the bus and left."

As a Howard undergraduate Pendleton exhibited aggressiveness. "He was very forward, which is why he developed into such a great swimmer. His real goal was to be a football player, he played center, but his real forte was swimming. He was a bulldog in the water," says Thomas Johnson, a Howard faculty member, who has seen several strong swimmers, including Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, end up as strong leaders.

When Pendleton succeeded Johnson as the swimming coach, he built a championship team and a reputation as a hard taskmaster. "I can remember one of the swimmers saying to me, 'if they think Vince Lombardi's tough, he can forget it, they ought to come in here and talk to you,' " says Pendleton, proud of his record and reputation. His was the most successful sports team on campus: 10 championships in 11 years, berths in national competitions, trips to Egypt.

But after 10 years of coaching he was offered a job with the Baltimore Model Cities program at twice his Howard salary. At the time, 1968, he was divorced, with two children to support, earning $7,548 a year for teaching, with no salary for coaching the sports teams. "I really enjoyed the molding of people, but I was starving," recalls Pendleton.

In Baltimore, Pendleton experienced a political process absent in Washington. "Nothing you are going to be in Washington but a Democrat . . . I didn't know beans about politics," says Pendleton. "The movers and shakers there were not Democrats." Slowly he changed to an Independent, then a Republican. After working in Baltimore, he returned to Washington to work for the National Recreation and Park Association and then moved to San Diego to direct its Model Cities program and "have the chance to do something entirely my own."

By the time Pendleton moved to California, he had come to believe that economic opportunity is the great equalizer.

In his 3 1/2 years with the San Diego city government, Pendleton solidified his reputation as a maverick. "I made a lot of enemies," he says. "I fought some major philosophical battles about whether this was going to be money to go to somebody for a job for a while or whether we were going to change the way the institutions of government and the private sector responded to people who had less. I took the later course."

About 1976 he cast his first Republican vote for now U. S. Senator-elect Pete Wilson, and developed his GOP ties.

From 1975 to early 1982 -- his years at the Urban League -- only San Diego and a few others were listening to Pendleton. But he was listening to himself, learning. "I was good and smart. I had the ability to make people more effective, though it might make them mad in the meantime." The brown eyes behind his tortoise-shell bifocals have the bulldog determination of his swimming youth.

At the Urban League, he emphasized real-estate investments and economic-development programs over social programs, and the league's land holdings rose from $218,000 to $3 million. He also obtained more than 7,000 unsubsidized jobs in the private sector for adults and teen-agers. The profit-making enterprises, Pendleton says, were a success.

But Hope Logan, current chairman of the San Diego League board, refutes that: "That is not the case. The League has received not one cent in income from that corporation. Our last audit in June of this year would not support" the conclusion that it was successful. "Many people considered his ability to move in top corporate circles a positive," Logan adds. "I have seen no benefit accruing to the League from those contacts, not in dollars and cents." Questioned during his seven-year tenure about his personal and public money management, an internal investigation, as well as scrutiny by the FBI and Senate Judiciary Committee, cleared him of accusations of wrongdoing.

While he was head of the San Diego League, Pendleton also marshaled support for black Marines at nearby Camp Pendleton who were the victims of KKK attacks, and caused a stir by sponsoring a $5 soup-and-cornbread night that senior citizens could afford for the League's annual fund-raiser.

Yet, in the national network of the League, Pendleton's views were being received with suspicion. The majority of the 118 executive directors had social work backgrounds, and his language was alien to them. "He was talking about large-scale industrial park development, manufacturing, housing, loan packaging. To many it was heresy," says William Johnson of Rochester. Pendleton acknowledges, "I was never the fair-haired boy of the Urban League." When he quit the League in April, he said he was tired of being "a punching bag."

During times of tension, his solace is his family. Pendleton, his second wife, Margrit, 42, and their 3-year-old daughter, Paula, live in LaJolla, an exclusive section of San Diego. He jogs on the beach, a constant routine since a heart attack in 1976. When he was 49, Pendleton became a father for the third time. "That was the greatest thing ever happened to me," says Pendleton. "She [his daughter] reduces my daily stress. When I hold her all the tension goes out. And when she would fall asleep on my shoulder, I would relax knowing I would not transmit those tensions."

In his office at the commission, Pendleton is relaxed, quickly pointing out that his part-time status hasn't allowed him to personalize his work setting, explaining that he prefers round tables, so everyone is equal. His bulk exceeds his chair's capacity and he seems more at ease when he springs lightly to his feet and talks, walking back and forth.

Despite his isolation from some black Republicans and Democrats, there are perks, such as lunch with FBI Director William Webster in Webster's private dining room. That kind of contact helps. When the body of a relative turned up with a crushed skull in Philadelphia, Miss., Elmer Moore, a retired foreign service officer, called Pendleton for help. "He got on the case very quickly, called Webster and in 40 minutes called me back with a full report. Then he invited me to lunch because he knew I was depressed," says Moore.

Independence rather than unpredictability is how Pendleton describes his role in the administration's civil rights policy.

In keeping with his profile as a maverick, Pendleton has differed with both administration and commission policy. He called the Justice Department's decision not to appeal the ruling that the University of Richmond was exempt in a Title IX sex discrimination case, a "profound break," from past federal policy. He abstained from the commission vote last month which backed mandatory busing, a stand opposite the administration's, and earlier this year said a commission report criticizing the administration's record on civil rights was not his view. When the 33 state commission chairmen sent a critical letter to Reagan, Pendleton said they should resign.

Internally, he has quickened the pace of commission meetings and has cut back on what some participants characterized as the pontificating of commissioners. Where Pendleton feels he has instilled efficiency, others think he has been cavalier about the staff input, going to important meetings without a staff person and paring the meetings so the staff reports are not thoroughly reviewed. True to his fiscal conservatism and the budget-trimming goals of the Reagan administration, Pendleton has asked that the commission budget be decreased, is closing two regional offices, and is trimming the responsibility of the state advisory committees.

Pendleton, who supports next year's reauthorization of the commission, is still uncertain about the commission's impact. "Not being lawyers, we can just make our position known based upon how we review the law and how we think it is being applied. Beyond that point there is nothing we can do," says Pendleton. But that does not lessen the thrill of the opportunity. "My battleground is this administration," he says.