CHAIRMAN ROGERS: I guess the question that still lingers in my mind is, in the Navy we used to have an expression about going by the book, and I gather you were going by the book. But doesn't the process require some judgment? Don't you have to use common sense? . . .

Sometimes William P. Rogers comes on like a prosecuting attorney in his job as chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.

This is not surprising. With an entire nation looking over his shoulder, the pressures for a truly soul-searching investigation were enormous. Pressure from President Reagan, who picked him. Pressure from industry and the military. Pressure from the media. Pressure from the millions who saw the thing blow up on TV.

Why did it happen? Who is responsible? What is the future of the space program? And, most important, how to keep this from becoming another Warren Commission?

When, right off the bat, Rogers realized that "the decision-making process may be flawed," that NASA, which was helping to conduct the investigation, might be part of the problem, he moved briskly. Immediately clearing the room, he huddled with his colleagues and decided, first, to tell the president. Then he barred from the investigation all the top NASA people who had a voice in the launch decision.

This is the same man who stood by passively as Nixon's secretary of state while Henry Kissinger short-circuited the whole department? This is the same man Sen. Stuart Symington called "the laughingstock of the cocktail party circuit" because Kissinger had made himself "secretary of state in everything but title"? The same man who dropped out a few months after Nixon's 1972 reelection and returned to his New York law practice as though nothing had happened?

An interesting man, William Pierce Rogers.

A private one, too. For the past 36 years he's lived in the same white clapboard house in Bethesda, where he and his wife raised four children. He rarely gives interviews, especially not now. He wants the commission's report, due to be released Monday, to be taken as a team effort.

"I won't be doing the talk shows, either," he said. "I just want to get back to the low profile."

He did say that this group is really special, "working so hard, all these stars and Nobel laureates and PhDs."

He has been on commissions before, "and it was usually done by the staff. They'd turn in the report and you'd look at it and make a few changes, and that was it. You might meet 10 times. Not here."

When he was a young assistant district attorney under Thomas E. Dewey in New York, he was hired by the Senate War Investigating Committee, becoming chief counsel in 1947.

"When I started out," he recalled, "I went to the chief and said, 'I appreciate having this job, but is there any assignment for me?' He said, 'That's why I hired you, to tell me what to do.' "

There's none of that on the Challenger commission.

"At the very first session at the Johnson Space Center," said one commissioner who didn't want his name used, "when it became very clear that the people we were counting on for data had made major mistakes, we changed from a review body to a working-level investigating body. I think we're unique as a presidential commission in many respects. For one thing, we've all worked on the front line, as has Rogers."

Staffers report that the 72-year-old Rogers -- trim and active at 6 feet 1, an outdoorsman all his life -- arrives before 9 and usually doesn't leave until after 7, often lunching on sandwiches sent in to the conference room. Sometimes he'll slip away for a chocolate sundae, his favorite vice.

His wife of just-shy 50 years, Adele, a law school classmate, attended all the public sessions, sitting close to the front and taking notes.

"He knew all the names the first day -- the trash man, the mailman, everyone," said Mark Weinberg, the commission's press liaison. "There was always this sense of deep concern, of thinking what was the best way to handle something. He would say, 'As public servants, we should . . . ' "

"Rogers is very good at mediating the various views of the members," said the commissioner. "He explains points briefly and simply, in a nonargumentative way, getting everybody to see them. There's not a lot of dialectic and fine parsing of words. And he doesn't try to muscle people or present a fait accompli. He has a very good sense of words, nuances, what they really will convey to Congress, to the man in the street, to ill-disposed readers . . .

"He's a friendly, gregarious guy, and people think he's sort of low pressure. After the Kissinger thing, people think maybe he's not so sharp. But they are very, very wrong."

The old Washington hands who knew Rogers from the Eisenhower days and the Nixon era say the same thing: a calm, personable fellow, unfailingly reasonable, unflappable. With a flash of humor that could crack up a tense hearing.

With a temper, too. Some claimed they could read it in his face, went so far as to label him "thin-skinned," "waspish" on occasion, wondered how he ever got along with Nixon, so different in temperament. And how he managed to keep his cool with Kissinger.

"A very cool, collected, objective, analytical person," said Bryce Harlow, a former presidential counselor. "He says what he believes very bluntly. A tough guy. He has a temper, yes, but it's controlled. A very controlled man."

The Kissinger episode tells a lot about Bill Rogers.

When, as one of Nixon's oldest and closest friends, he was named secretary of state in 1969, the idea was that he would make a "superb negotiator," as Nixon put it, "the best negotiator in the world," who would run the department efficiently while Nixon himself handled foreign policy.

"He wasn't appointed because he was passive," said Harlow. "Not at all. The President wanted him because he's so hard-nosed. He wanted him to work with the Soviet Union. He wanted the kind of guy who would stand up to them, that's the reason he was picked."

What happened at State, in brief, is that the National Security Council had taken over some of its territory, a situation that can be traced to Truman's creation of the National Intelligence Authority in 1946, removing certain intelligence duties from State. A year later Truman set up the NSC, which remained relatively quiescent during the Eisenhower years but emerged as a policy-making power in 1961 after the Bay of Pigs. So the machinery was already in place when Kissinger came on as national security adviser.

In his book "The White House Years," Kissinger comments: "Nixon regarded Rogers' unfamiliarity with the subject an asset because it guaranteed that policy direction would remain in the White House. At the same time, Nixon said, Rogers was one of the toughest, most cold-eyed, self-centered and ambitious men he had ever met. As a negotiator, he would give the Soviets fits."

Again and again, Rogers was undercut. He was excluded from Nixon's first meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin. He was kept in the dark about the White House-Kremlin breakthrough on SALT until three days before the announcement. He learned of Kissinger's secret trip to China in 1971 only when Kissinger was already on the plane. He wasn't taken along to the 1972 Peking summit with Mao Tse-tung, though Kissinger was. The incidents, as outlined by Kissinger himself, are endless.

From the book, published by Little, Brown: "Rogers was far abler than he was pictured; he had a shrewd analytical mind and outstanding common sense. But his perspective was tactical; as a lawyer, he was trained to deal with issues as they arose 'on their merits.' My approach was strategic and geopolitical . . . "

To Robert J. McCloskey, press spokesman for State under Dean Rusk and Rogers and a former Washington Post ombudsman, what has been called the "humiliation" of his former boss has been somewhat overblown in the minds of power-preoccupied Washingtonians.

"The press in Washington has an instinct for sensing where influence is," he said. "Kissinger at the beginning was a fairly obscure figure, but once the press sensed he was moving big chips around they were quick to pick up on it. There is this who's-on-top-today approach to the news, and a lot of it is self-generated, both by the press and by people in government."

McCloskey noted that "the foreign policy agenda grew much more complex during the late '50s and early '60s." Rogers himself once observed that State was becoming involved in all sorts of domestic problems that had turned international: the environment, satellites, hijacking, communications, air traffic, drugs and so on.

McCloskey singled out the Rogers Plan of 1969 as an example of the man's accomplishments at State. The plan called for Israel to withdraw from Arab land it had occupied in the 1967 war and for the Arabs in return to commit themselves to peace. Rejected at the time, the plan resurfaced under Reagan in 1981 and is still very much alive . . . like Rogers himself.

"Through it all, Rogers was a gallant man and, in my opinion, a good secretary of state," McCloskey said.

The experts are still arguing over just how good, since Rogers always contended that Nixon and he "think alike" and that therefore many of Nixon's foreign policy achievements were his, too.

Yet Rogers became a voice of caution in the administration. When North Korean jets shot down an American intelligence plane in 1969, Rogers urged against the retaliation that Defense was demanding. "In international affairs," he said, "the weak can be rash; the powerful must be restrained."

While he generally backed the administration's politico-military strategy in Vietnam, he objected violently, but in vain, to the 1970 invasion of Cambodia. "He was smart enough to recognize that Vietnam was a horrible blunder," remarked one Washington insider who is not a fan, "but his ideas about it were kind of simplistic: Just get the hell out. Maybe he was right at that."

Rogers never accepted the theory that "we lose countries or gain them . . . Unless we are ready to risk war or intrude recklessly in others' affairs we must recognize that some problems are beyond our capacity to solve."

He also modernized State, computerized it, reformed the training and personnel policies. During this period Rogers was not known for late hours or intense study. "He had the salient facts underlined in red so he wouldn't have to spend his time reading," one observer recalled. "He knew almost nothing about foreign affairs or the outside world, yet he became our first secretary of state to visit Africa below the Sahara. If this says something about Rogers, it says maybe more about America."

According to William Safire, a New York Times columnist and former Nixon speech writer, the word for Rogers is "skillful." "He knows how to get things done in a way that doesn't raise hackles but raises gates."

Safire learned firsthand about the Rogers style when, "always on the lookout for overwritten phrases, I found one in a foreign policy speech -- something about 'mutual and balanced force reductions.' I made it 'mutual force reductions.' "

This was a late draft of a Nixon speech, and it went straight to the president, who duly read it on the air in Europe.

"Well, I got a call from someone at NSC who hollered and screamed and carried on. I hung up on him. Then Rogers called. He said, 'Bill, I know what a wonderful job you do getting things shorter and concise, but sometimes in diplomatic language you need nuances. What "mutual and balanced" means is that the Soviets are being asked to reduce their forces in a way to compensate for their geographic advantage in Europe. You maybe cost us 50,000 troops. And I know you don't want to do that.'

"I put the words back in the written version of the speech, which is the final version. That's Bill Rogers -- smooth, quiet, a thoroughgoing diplomat."

And a survivor. He has been part of the American drama for a generation. He urged Nixon to press his investigation of Alger Hiss, and invited the then-Vice President to his home to talk with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in an attempt to head off the demagogue from a collision with President Eisenhower. He helped Nixon write the "Checkers" speech and succored him in a moment of panic after Eisenhower's heart attack Sept. 24, 1955.

At the time, the laws were fuzzy about coping with an incapacitated president, and Nixon, unsure of his role, wanted desperately to avoid the press, which he had escaped earlier in the evening by climbing over his back fence. Reporters were still waiting in the playroom-basement of his home (at his wife's invitation) while he and the Cabinet were trying to decide what to do.

It was past midnight. Nixon had been closeted for hours with Rogers, who was then attorney general, and the White House staff chief. He phoned home, learned that Pat Nixon had just served the press coffee, and decided to hide out for the night in Rogers' house in Bethesda.

"About 2:30 I went up to the second-floor guest room where Mrs. Rogers had laid out for me a towel, toothbrush and a pair of Bill's pajamas," Nixon writes in "Six Crises." "Even had the President's illness not been on my mind I would not have slept well that night, and as it was I did not sleep at all . . . On the floor above me, Bill's 14-year-old son Tony, a ham radio operator, was engaged in some kind of all-night sending and receiving contest, and I could hear the high-pitched dots and dashes . . . "

After the 1960 campaign Rogers quit politics and concentrated on his law business. (Clients were to include The Washington Post Co., for which he was counsel; the New York Times, for which he won the landmark Times v. Sullivan libel suit in 1964 before the Supreme Court; the Associated Press, the Dreyfus Fund and others.) A coolness grew up between him and Nixon, either, as some said, because he didn't want to be known as simply a Nixon crony, or because of a falling-out over law clients.

One story is that when Nixon was running for governor of California in 1962 he turned over some clients to Rogers but, after he lost, never got them back.

Born in Norfolk, N.Y., the son of a bank director and paper mill executive who was brought low by the Depression, Rogers was mostly raised by his grandparents in nearby Canton. A bright kid who worked after school at jobs ranging from door-to-door sales to commercial photography, he still had time to take up tap dancing. Entering Colgate on a scholarship, he supported himself and went on to law school, passing the New York bar in 1937.

The next year he was one of 60 young lawyers picked by District Attorney Dewey (from some 6,000) for a campaign against what the press loved to call Murder Inc., racketeers and hired Syndicate killers. Rogers argued 1,000 cases in four years.

After the war -- he saw action on a carrier at Okinawa as a Navy lieutenant commander -- came the war frauds counsel job, in which Rogers helped expose the "5-percenters" who fixed federal contracts for private firms. It was at this time that he met Nixon, a freshman congressman.

In 1952 Rogers came to national attention when he helped seat Eisenhower's delegates to the GOP convention rather than Robert Taft's. His reward was to be made deputy attorney general (1953-57), and attorney general when Herbert Brownell resigned.

In these years Rogers was best known for his work on the historic Civil Rights Act of 1957. Brownell remembers him as a crackerjack courtroom lawyer.

"He had all that experience in criminal law, you know," said Brownell, now a New York attorney. "A very capable fellow. He was in on the Little Rock business. The first civil rights act since the Civil War. He was also in charge of relations with Congress, including confirmation of judges. A very strong man, a fine lawyer. Very thorough. I expect a strong report from him on the Challenger."

Rogers specialized in enforcement of the civil rights advances, set up the Civil Rights Division, which gave him the power to move against voting rights denial. Pulling a reluctant Eisenhower along behind him, he launched antitrust suits against the likes of Westinghouse and General Electric and started a drive against organized crime.

(Eisenhower to Rogers one day on the Hill: "Would you mind getting between me and Lyndon Johnson? I don't want him tugging at my lapels anymore. He always tugs at my lapels.")

That career ended with the Kennedy inaugural in 1961. Rogers went back -- as he would after his State career, as he expects to after this brief hurrah for Reagan -- to his law practice at Rogers & Wells in New York and Washington, to his wife and their four grown children, Dale, Anthony, Jeffrey and Douglas, to the house in Bethesda and the plush apartment in New York near the United Nations Building, where once he served on the U.S. delegation.

Back to the low profile: the quiet life, in which the biggest splash may well be the Saturday Evening Post-like family Christmas cards, a 40-year tradition, or a bird-watching jaunt in the Shenandoahs. Back to that other Bill Rogers, who once paced the sidelines at his boys' football games at Sidwell Friends, who washes the dishes and loves a big breakfast (one time Adele flew from here to New York at 7 a.m. just to fix him a real breakfast) and enjoys the country clubs, Kenwood, Burning Tree and the others, and the Presbyterian church, and all the insignia of the successful lawyer's soft-spoken, carpeted world.

There will be a difference now.

Ray Scherer, a Washington newsman who has seen them come and go for 30 years, said this:

"He was a colorful, hard-charging guy in the early days, very different from his image in the Nixon years, when he came off as a passive character. Maybe it was his loyalty to Nixon. It must have been tough for him. Now we're seeing some of the old Rogers again. The old forthright hard-charger. He's resurrecting himself."