NEW YORK -- This is a happy man.

Charlie Rose may look a bit bleary this morning, trudging into his office wearing jeans and a leather jacket. There are lines around his eyes. He finished last night's live show at midnight. He's skipped dinner two days running in order to tape interviews with diplomat George Kennan and choreographer Twyla Tharp. He hasn't been back to his 525-acre North Carolina farm, where he tries to spend every third weekend, in six weeks. He's getting a chest cold. "I'm not taking care of myself," he moans.

But make no mistake: Rose thinks interviewing classy achievers on public television at the comparatively sane hour of 11 each weeknight is heaven. Rose thinks being in New York, where he's a society star who makes the gossip columns and gets a great table at Mortimer's, is giving him the kind of visibility and clout he never attained during his years in Washington. Rose is having a swell time.

If a late-night time slot on financially strapped PBS hasn't set the Nielsens afire yet -- in Washington, a smidgen more than 9,000 households have been tuning in, on average, since "Charlie Rose" switched from a local New York talk show to a national one last month -- does that detract from his delight?

"Not for a second," says Rose, who has wandered down to the cafeteria at WNET, the New York public television station, and ordered a bran muffin. He launches into a paean to quality that has overtones of a Ford commercial.

"I'd like to have the highest ratings in the history of television, I really would," he says. "But what makes a difference to me is, how good were we last night? Were we hitting on all cylinders? Did we raise the right issues? Was the broadcast seamless?"

It would be churlish to complain. After six years hosting the Washington-based "Nightwatch" -- respected but little-watched, the now-defunct show aired on CBS from 2 to 6 a.m., relying heavily on insomniacs and nursing mothers for its audience -- Rose is at last developing the higher profile he always thought he deserved. And repeatedly told his "Nightwatch" colleagues he deserved.

Said colleagues have watched with some amusement as their underappreciated wee-hours host has become the dinner partner of leading socialites and the subject of air-kisses from Esquire, GQ and New York magazines. (Not to mention a Newsday piece that explored at length the subject of the long-divorced Rose's appeal to women.) Isn't it supposed to be harder to make it in New York than anywhere else? But on the whole, knowing how badly Rose craved success, they are happy for him too.

"He wanted recognition," says a former "Nightwatch" producer who, like several others noting Rose's ascent, requested anonymity. "He wanted other people to throw him into the basket with Sam and Ted and Diane and Barbara and all the other {broadcasters} he calls by their first names -- and frankly, no one did. ... New York was a good move: It elevated his star."

Rose is 51, a Duke University-trained lawyer whose Carolina roots still echo in pronunciations like "impordant" and "continya." He began in broadcasting as Bill Moyers's producer and protege, and probably owes some of his I'm-so-fascinated interview style to his mentor. He was also a TV talk-show host in Chicago, Dallas and Washington, which may help account for his ability to chat comfortably with everyone from Nobel laureates to quarterbacks. When it comes to the "long-form interview" (in TV terms, 15 minutes is an eternity), Rose is a pro, well-read and empathic, sometimes to the point of unctuousness.

"The secret to his success is, he knows what he's talking about," says Deborah Johnson, who was "Nightwatch's" last executive producer. "And Charlie's very good at knocking people off their programmed answers. I've seen him do it a million times: He looks for ways to get through the armor."

The grueling pace of "Nightwatch" was good training for his current hour-a-night marathon. That show was two hours long (it was rebroadcast from 4 to 6 a.m.). Prepped by a cadre of sharp producers, Rose often taped a half-dozen interviews a day. One of them, a prison visit with Charles Manson in 1986, won an Emmy. "We were a tiny band of warriors," Rose says. "I loved that broadcast."

Yet "Nightwatch" was subjected to slow death by network cutbacks, the eventual victim of CBS's takeover traumas and of its own skimpy ratings. "It was a low priority at the network," he says. "Or no priority."

Working there was frustrating for everyone -- "the Rodney Dangerfield of the network," producer Bill McGowan, now at "A Current Affair," calls the show -- but it may have been particularly frustrating for Rose. Staffers describe a hunger for recognition and an ego that was outsized even by the inflated standards of network TV talent. His courtly on-air persona notwithstanding, Rose was galled by the way his time slot doomed him to comparative obscurity while other network anchors grew in stature.

Whenever "Nightwatch" featured a story that another network show had also covered, Rose would "sort of float through the control room and say {his} was a better interview than Sam's, or as good as Ted's," recalls a producer still working in network news. "He'd always use their first names, put himself in the elite of broadcasting."

This producer remembers Rose's fuming about the guests listed on the show's "futures board" and demanding, "Why aren't you booking better people? You have one of the best interviewers in network television! Why can't you just call and tell people it's Charlie Rose!" As if, the producer adds, "people would just say, 'Oh, of course, I'll clear my schedule.' "

"He said to me on many occasions that he thought he was more talented than Koppel and it killed him that Koppel was getting all this adulation," says another "Nightwatch" producer working in network news. Other producers say they heard the same lament.

This is not, of course, the way Rose remembers his Washington period. "Would I have wanted to see a lot more attention {given to the broadcast} because I believed in the show? Absolutely," he says. "Did I let it hamper me? Not for a second. Did I walk around frustrated? No, it's not my nature."

As for the comparisons, Rose begins to say, "I did think I was as good as -- " and then stops himself. "I thought I was good at my job," he continues, carefully. "I don't know how to measure how well I did versus other people. I have confidence in my abilities; I think that's why people came to our broadcast in the middle of the night."

But if he could be obnoxious, and if there were complaints then and now that Rose was too soft an interviewer, those who worked with him also concede his abilities.

Marc Shaffer, now an associate producer at CBS's "Street Stories," once flew to Las Vegas with Rose to tape a hard-to-arrange interview with Mike Tyson. At 3:30, they were sitting in Don King's living room, ready to roll. No Tyson. An hour of foot-tapping later, Rose, who had a cold, went back to his hotel. Rose was infamous for being unable to tolerate waiting for tardy guests, which some staffers attributed to a feeling that as the star, guests should wait for him. "Putting Krazy Glue on his chair probably would've been a good idea," says McGowan.

Naturally, Tyson walked in 20 minutes later. Shaffer, frantically dialing the hotel, couldn't locate Rose. "I should've told him not to go," Shaffer says now, for by the time Rose returned, the champ was sulking upstairs. "A classic."

But here's the kicker: "They ended up talking for an hour," marvels Shaffer, who'd been hoping for, oh, seven minutes. "Here's an angry, immature man, a kid, who's given to mood swings, who punches people out for a living. And Charlie was able to settle him down, charm him -- it was a good interview."

Vicki Sufian, a "Nightwatch" executive producer now working on PBS documentaries, remembers the drama of producing Rose's hour-long interview with author-in-hiding Salman Rushdie from Washington last spring. The morning interview wasn't confirmed until the last minute. Rose finished his regular broadcast at midnight, took home a stack of research, was on a plane at 7 a.m. Driven to a heavily guarded suburban hotel suite, he arrived moments before Rushdie.

"They sat down for an hour and had a totally seamless conversation; Charlie never even looked down at his notes," says Sufian. After which Rose had to hotfoot it back to New York to do two shows, one live and one taped.

Hampered by travel disasters, he didn't arrive in Manhattan until 10 p.m; in the tumult, he hadn't even ascertained which guests his producers had booked. But when Sufian clicked on his live show an hour later, "you could not tell what had transpired in the previous 24 hours," she recalls. "He was relaxed, engaged with the guests, asking the right questions. ... It was truly staggering."

The CBS brass, however, weren't quite as admiring. Rose was never given a prime-time magazine, the vacated morning news anchorship, or what he asked for most often: a "Nightwatch"-style show at 11:30. Hurt, he left in 1990 to anchor a Fox Television show called "Personalities." Within a few months, realizing that he'd signed on with a tabloid heavy on sound bites and celebs, he resigned and went home to his farm.

"I had no idea what I was going to do," Rose says of that intermission. "I'm not very good on the sidelines." The Persian Gulf War broke out and Rose had to watch it on CNN like everybody else. "A significant event, and I wanted to be asking questions, assembling people, finding out what was going on. And I had no way to do that."

It was the better part of a year before Rose, rejecting offers that didn't interest him, hooked up with WNET. He made his debut here in September 1991; last month, he went national. Last week, he kicked off the first of what will be regular Monday night Washington broadcasts from the WETA studios; his launch included such political bait as George Stephanopoulos and Bill Bradley. "A great unfolding story, a lot of interesting new people," Rose says of his old environs.

No wonder he's happy. Not only has he clambered back onto the national airwaves, but he's back with the show he always wanted to do: "Nightwatch" for the still-awake.

To spend an electronic hour with Charlie Rose as he schmoozes with a startling variety of guests -- from filmmakers (John Sayles, Spike Lee) and architects (Frank Gehry), to designers (Karl Lagerfeld) and musicians (Andre Watts, Ruben Blades), to the sports stars and pols he is probably most at ease with (Phil Simms, Pete Rose, Henry Kissinger, Richard Holbrooke) -- is to enter a different sort of TV zone.

It's quiet there, with no audience or sidekick or band, and it's cozily dark, courtesy of the black velvet drapes that line the set at WNET. There's a round oak table across which the host likes to lean intimately, gesturing, inviting confidences. "The premise of the program," he says, "is to offer an audience front-row seats to eavesdrop on good conversation, insightful and interesting."

The Rose definition of good conversation is almost mystical, involving not only specific details and issues but "questions that try to get at and reveal who this person is, what makes them tick," Rose says. "Strip away the barriers to communication ... so they forget they're on television and they're being as human as you can possibly make them." He is growing a bit dreamy. "Have these people take us on a journey of exploration of who they are, what they've done and hope to do, what passion beats in their hearts."

In New York, where local issues like racial tensions in Crown Heights and the fall of Judge Sol Wachtler sometimes dominated the show, this approach has paid some dividends. Not only did the show's ratings climb 50 percent in its first year, but both "Charlie Rose" and Charlie Rose became phenoms in those circles where 500 fans can help make you a star if they're the right 500.

It's helped that he's been a high-profile guy. "Charlie Rose has been the hot ticket for the fall season," says fund-raiser George Trescher, a fixture at charity balls and society galas. "And with reason: He's charming, clever, amusing, intelligent and versatile, all those lovely things." Rose sat at Ralph Lauren's table at a Museum of Modern Art film screening; he attended Vogue editor Anna Wintour's small dinner for Giorgio Armani; he's fast friends with doyenne Brooke Astor (her foundation helps fund "Charlie Rose"), whom he met at his pal Liz Smith's birthday party at the Russian Tea Room. He dates the socially prominent Amanda Burden, whose stepfather was William Paley and whose ex-husband was Steve Ross.

"He's all around town," says Rose's friend John Scanlon, the PR exec who hosted a party at the Century Club to kick off Rose's national launch. "I think he goes out virtually every night of the month. ... I say, 'How'd you get so-and-so {to appear on the show}?' 'Oh, met her at a party.' "

(He is not so gauche, Rose is at pains to point out, as to walk up, pump a stranger's hand and invite him onto the broadcast. "What will happen is, people will talk about the program at dinner and they develop a sense of who I am and that this is a show they'd like to be on.")

But how will "Charlie Rose" fare with a national audience?

Compared with Rose's gigs at CBS or Fox, this is a low-budget show (including a far smaller salary for its host), though repeated requests for actual budget figures met with polite shrugs. One of the things it can't afford to do with much intensity is promote itself.

So, not surprisingly, the early returns are uneven. In New York, after a year-and-a-half, "Charlie Rose" typically gets a 1.2 rating, which translates to 83,000 households. On the West Coast, the show seems to be catching on, given its time slot and recent introduction: In San Francisco, it pulls an average 1.3 rating and is seen in 22,500 households. The Washington audience jumped by 5,500 households last Monday, when WETA aired the first of the Washington-based shows. But in some markets, "Charlie Rose" airs on secondary stations or at odd times -- 1 p.m., 5 p.m., midnight.

Public television is a different and smaller universe than Rose had been accustomed to. Though he's now seen on 162 stations nationally, PBS estimates on the basis of overnight ratings in selected markets last month that Rose is drawing an audience of 400,000 households. Even the pre-dawn "Nightwatch" beamed into a million households.

Rose says he's not worried; any new show takes time to find an audience. "It's word of mouth," he says. "It almost has to come viewer by viewer."

As for critics and journalists around the country, they've been warmly welcoming, with one stinging exception: New York Times TV writer Walter Goodman recently lacerated Rose's "sycophancy" and wondered, "Doesn't the relentless puffery strain the spirit or dampen the brain?"

Rose was upset ("it seemed vindictive to me"), in part because this charge has dogged him since his "Nightwatch" days. He throws squishy, softball questions, his critics have said. He's too concerned with being liked and having his guests come back. Guests "will go on and be pretty confident that what they do for a living will be called 'a craft' and the way they do it will be called 'genius,' " says McGowan. "Charlie is pretty good at enhancing people's reputations. It's to any talk show host's advantage to do that, and he's adept at it."

Guests do appreciate Rose's gentility and the extended time he grants them. "Some talk show hosts believe that their job is to start a fight," says former congressman Bill Gray, president of the United Negro College Fund, who was part of a recent round table discussing the Clinton economic plan. "Charlie takes the position that his job is to convey information to the audience."

Rose chafes nonetheless. "There's never been a tough question I didn't ask or wasn't prepared to ask," he retorts. Anyone who says he's "not as tough and as focused and as pointed as {I} should be doesn't know what they're talking about."

But tough is not the first word anyone employs to describe Rose (The New Yorker television critic James Wolcott wrote earlier this month that the medium "favors soft, fuzzy huggies, like PBS's Charlie Rose"), and why should it be? Except for a brief stint at NBC, he was never the sort of news hound who chased stories and lobbed questions at guys with their hats over their faces. He's always been an interviewer, a more cerebral version of Donahue or King, not an interrogator. He presides over a genial late-night salon. One of the reasons "Nightwatch" staffers used to roll their eyes at his name-dropping was that Rose was so completely unlike severe, impersonal Ted or attack-dog Sam.

"I am by nature civil," Rose says. It's almost a confession. "You can't squeeze people into places they don't want to be."

Well, you can. But there seems to be an audience for a guy who's more comfortable leaning across an oak table, looking deeply into a guest's eyes, and saying something like, "Tell me when you first knew -- really knew -- that you were special." If it's by definition a small audience, Rose insists that's okay by him.

"Charlie's in the niche he's always wanted to be in," says McGowan. "If he walks into '21' at the same time as Ted and Sam and Dan, he'll get the fourth-best table. I don't know if that will bother him. But it shouldn't: He's in a class by himself."