NEW YORK -- The following is a media alert for public affairs freaks, talk show junkies and "Nightline" bookers: You will soon be seeing a lot more of Prof. Nadine Strossen, age 40, articulate and probably telegenic authority on constitutional law. Expect intensifying visibility for two reasons:

(a) As the just-elected president of the American Civil Liberties Union, the first person to head the 71-year-old organization who's not a white male, Strossen will be trekking from campus debate to congressional hearing to bar association confab preaching from the Bill of Rights, an occasionally controversial text.

(b) As the ACLU's yearly win-loss record in an increasingly inhospitable U.S. Supreme Court dips below 50 percent for the first time in 25 years, and its lobbying and public education efforts grow correspondingly more important, such speechifying on behalf of civil liberties will become a key strategic tactic.

Maybe there's a (c) too. As Strossen told her New York Law School class the other day, writing the words WAR and PEACE in large letters on the chalkboard, "Rights that exist in peacetime are not guaranteed in times of war."

The ACLU takes no position on the war itself, but even before the fighting began in the Persian Gulf, it was busy mobilizing on a number of fronts, filing lawsuits on behalf of publications challenging press restrictions, working with soldiers who think the Defense Department is restricting their religious freedom, and monitoring government surveillance of Arab Americans and Iraqi nationals.

"In a time of perceived national crisis there's the greatest pressure on civil liberties," the new president says after class, retreating to an office with an "Another Woman for Choice" poster on the door. "The government will always invoke the need to combat drugs, communism, attacks on the sanctity of the family, Saddam Hussein -- whatever the particular bogeyman of the time is."

Historical perspective seems to be a job requirement for leadership in the ACLU, whose membership of 275,000 and 51 state affiliates make it the country's largest and most active litigant and campaigner for civil liberties. Arguing in state legislatures for abortion rights, lobbying Congress to restore civil rights provisions -- it all does generate a strong sense of de'ja` vu.

"One has to keep fighting the same battles over and over," Strossen acknowledges. Like virtually everyone in the organization's top ranks, she came of age during the Earl Warren era, when "it certainly was, in hindsight, unbelievably easy to take one test case to the Supreme Court and in one fell swoop open up whole new horizons of individual rights." No more.

But she is, Strossen says, a Pollyanna. And maybe this period in which the ACLU's gains of the '60s and '70s seem endangered by the political climate and the judicial appointments of the '80s and '90s will actually prove beneficial, she says hopefully. "Paradoxically, the more embattled civil liberties are, the more powerful the ACLU becomes. When there are attacks, people become concerned. They mobilize."

The woman who intends to help mobilize them grew up a nonconformist kid in suburban Minneapolis. As far back as junior high school, a teacher clucked at her, "Nadine, you're always defending the underdog."

"I thought she was saying something complimentary," says the grown-up Nadine. "She obviously did not."

When Strossen's high school commencement took place the day after Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968, she scrapped her prepared address and denounced the war in Vietnam, to her father's mortification. By the time she got to Harvard that fall -- she received both her undergraduate and her legal education there -- "it seemed to me I was going to Washington all the time" for anti-war demonstrations.

After law school, Strossen entered commercial litigation practice in Minneapolis and then New York, a kind of postgrad training for someone who always knew she wasn't headed for corporate-suite law.

"I don't think Nadine likes to surround herself with blue suits who make a lot of money," says Colleen O'Connor, the ACLU's public education director. Strossen turned to teaching law ("the freest thing you can do, aside from being independently wealthy, is be a tenured professor at a good school") and became an ACLU board member and general counsel.

When its 60-year-old president, Norman Dorsen, announced last spring that after 15 years he was serving his last term, Strossen was one of four to declare their candidacies, all women.

There was "an unspoken consensus," says Executive Director Ira Glasser, that an organization long active in sex discrimination and reproductive rights cases ought finally to have a woman at the helm. Strossen won on the second ballot.

It's ostensibly a part-time position and an unpaid one; Strossen will continue teaching at New York Law School. With policy-making the board's mandate, while Glasser supervises the 150-member national staff and doesn't sound eager to yield any of his internal authority or external visibility, an ACLU president could be seriously underemployed. This is not, however, what Strossen has in mind.

"It's not an inherently influential role," Strossen concedes of the presidency. "But you can, if you are very active and very involved ... have a great deal of influence."

Active and involved sound like understatements in this case: Strossen says her duties will consume "every waking hour when I am not teaching" (sleeping only four hours a night gives her more waking hours than most people). She plans to travel "constantly." She expects to meet with the staff, visit affiliates and accept "any invitation from a seemingly hostile organization" -- she debated campus speech restrictions at Washington's Cato Institute shortly after her election.

A strong advocate of involving young people in the organization, Strossen helped found a student chapter at New York Law School and has left "a little wake of student ACLU chapters" at colleges where she's spoken, Duke and the University of Virginia being the most recent.

And there will be, inevitably, the press. Strossen's an articulate but not humorless advocate for her cause, and it won't hurt that she's not the Woman in the Gray Flannel Suit -- she came to class today in a leather-skirted ensemble and pizzazzy jewelry. (She has also been known to don silver sequins and croon Edith Piaf songs in a nightclub on the Upper East Side.)

"Some smart lawyers may be good in court, but you wouldn't want to turn them loose on the Donahue show," Glasser says. "Nadine's not like that."

"She's able to be very strong in her views and very clear, but not confrontational," says author and columnist Nat Hentoff, who over the years has been both a friend and a critic of the organization, and has come to be an admirer of Strossen. During what he calls the ACLU's "civil war" over campus speech, in which some members argued that the First Amendment should not be construed to protect racist remarks, Strossen opposed any such speech codes, arguing that although colleges have a duty to explore the issues of bigotry, they may not silence bigots. "She just wouldn't budge during all that fighting," Hentoff says. The board eventually backed her position.

It's true, Strossen says; "I've been identified with a fairly classic definition of civil liberties," namely a "neutral posture" that insists on defending the rights of people regardless of their politics and that resists involving the ACLU in issues not directly related to civil liberties. It amuses Strossen to list some of the group's wildly disparate clients, from Oliver North and Lyn Nofziger to flag burners and antiabortion demonstrators, but the result is near-constant animosity from one source or another.

On the left, the ACLU takes flak from certain anti-pornography feminists (it says most porn is protected by the First Amendment), from supporters of the ABC child care bill (it would funnel federal money into churches in a way that would violate church-state separation, the ACLU argues), and from activists who want the group to get involved in poverty and "economic rights" issues. The right can generally be counted on to grow incensed over its support of abortion rights and its assertion that various components of the war on drugs violate the Fourth Amendment. Ed Meese once branded it "the criminals' lobby." And George Bush, of course, turned Michael Dukakis's proud assertion that he was "a card-carrying member of the ACLU" into a serious political liability.

Much as the Reagan years and what staffers call "the Bush-bashing" helped increase ACLU membership -- it was about 150,000 at the end of the '70s, jumped to 200,000 after Reagan's election and rose by another 50,000 in 1988 -- the organization seems a bit nervous these days. It is broadening its emphasis from litigation, which dominated its agenda 20 years ago, to lobbying (its once-marginal Washington office now has 20 staffers) and most recently public education, a department that has grown from two to 14 people in three years.

Says Glasser: "We have come to believe, as our predecessors did not, that if you fall too far behind public opinion, if the jealousy about guarding individual liberties is not alive and fresh in people's hearts, you have less chance of prevailing in courts and you sure can't prevail in legislatures. ... There was almost an arrogance. ... People actually used to say '{Screw} 'em. They pass a bad law on Monday, we'll go to court and knock it down on Tuesday.' ... It was a mistake to neglect public opinion."

This realization coincides nicely with the advent of Nadine Strossen.

Selling the Bill of Rights, even on the 200th anniversary of its ratification, is not always simple; show copies to any hundred-or-so Americans cruising a shopping mall and a significant number will find the document highly suspicious.

"It's inherent in the nature of the Bill of Rights, which is to protect against the tyranny of the majority," Strossen acknowledges.

So Strossen, Glasser et al. plan to keep harping on the notion of civil liberties' "indivisibility," which roughly translates as: If they can get you, they can get me.

"You know when people realize it? When their own rights are threatened," Strossen says. "People who brag about the fact that they'd never join the ACLU have no hesitation in contacting us when they're facing indictment."