Shortly after a fire swept through a Silver Spring nursing home Friday, Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist drove his car to the institution to inspect the damage and talk to the patients.

It was the perfect occasion for publicity, but when a free-lance photographer prepared to take pictures as Gilchrist walked toward a group of patients in wheelchairs, the county executive turned on his heel.

"I don't want to do it, I'll come back some other time," he said. "It'd be kind of a circus with the pictures snapping."

In his first 132 days as Montgomery's first Democratic county executive, Gilchrist has, in fact, done his best to stay out of headlines, maintaining the low-key posture for which he was praised and ridiculed during his campaign.

The result has been a workman-like administration, praised as "deliberative" and "reasoned" by his backers and faulted as "lacking direction" by others in a county where good government is serious business.

"He's a cautious guy, which is all right," said Gilchrist's close associate Jack Sexton, a former Democratic Party leader. "Six months from now the fact that something happened in month 6 versus month 3 won't make any difference."

But one of Gilchrist's primary election opponents, Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, put it another way: "Charlie still is figuring out what he wants to do. I don't see any clear sense of program or direction other than a general commitment to good government and things everyone is for."

Except for the firing of flamboyant police chief Robert J. diGrazia, Gilchrist has made no drastic changes in the programs of the government that serves 590,000 residents.

He has continued most of the major policies of his Republican predecessor, James P. Gleason-the commitment to a new sewage treatment plant to permit future development, revitalization of Silver Spring, a hold-the-line budget, support for a 100-mile Metro system, and limited rent control legislation.

A strict merit system permitted Gilchrist only 24 appointments among the 6,000 county government employes. So far, he has brought in only 11 new faces.

Unlike Gleason, a reluctant politician and skeptic who was frustrated with the imperfectibility of government, Gilchrist is highly motivated by his theory that "government can work."

"Proposition 13 (the tax cutting referendum, passed in California and elsewhere) demonstrated the lack of confidence in government." Gilchrist said in an interview Friday. "In my way, if I can advance the confidence in our system, I will have achieved my goals."

"We've fooled ourselves about government," Gilchrist said. "One of our problems was government's clinical approach. It is possible in a big county to talk to thousands of people and reestablish contact with them . . . It sounds corny, but much of the mental health problems of this country have come from remoteness and isolation."

Gilchrist has applied this view in prosaic, small-town ways. His phone number still is listed in the public telephone book. During the Feb. 19 snowstorm, his 8-year-old daughter Janet answered a call.The irate citizen fumed that he was going to "sue" her father for not clearing the snow from the roads more swiftly.

"I dare you," Janet Gilchrist retorted, and hung up.

He walks three-quarters of a mile to work from his Rockville home, and occasionally sneaks home for lunch. He refuses to go out every night on a weekend and still sings with friends in the couple's choral group in Rockville.

On Saturdays at work in the county office building, Gilchrist answers his own phone. There, when possible, he admits anyone who wants to see him, from the "flakes to the bigwigs," as an aide put it.

Three times in the past three weeks he has visited various communities for scheduled private conversations with any citizen who wants to see him.

"He's approaching the job more like a mayor of a small town," said Charles Maier, Gilchrist's press secretary, who also worked for Gleason. "Gleason was an uncomfortable politician. He ensconed himself in administrative matters. He looked informal but he was formal, and he had a way of scaring people.

"Gilchrist is less formal," Maier continued, "some think deceptively informal. He doesn't take himself too seriously and around the staff is somewhat self-deprecating. But he is clearly the boss."

The decisive, strong-willed streak that his closest friends insisted was present below the surface and his political foes alleged was nonexistent has pleasantly surprised some of Gilchrist's employes and constituents.

"The PR I had got was that I was in for a soft, nondirected, gooey kind of approach," said Gene Sieminski, director of the county housing office, who has counseled Gilchrist on several crucial decisions.

"In the experiences I had with him, we took prepared papers with complex information. He read them, thoughtfully looked at the material, digested it, and without procrastination, wham, he made a decision, and said he wanted this, this and this right down the line," Sieminski said.

Lately, however, that resoluteness has elicited some new criticism of Gilchrist's style. Some Democrats who supported his opponents have sought appointments to commissions and boards in the county tradition of forgiving political alliances after elections. But some of them have left Gilchrist's office with the clear impression that he doesn't trust them because they didn't support him in the election.

When asked by one applicant what he intended to do about Vera Berkman, a Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission member whose term expires in June, Gilchrist replied only that he "heard that she was a Hanson supporter."

Last week, women's groups and his top women campaign aides went public with their anger at his failure to appoint a woman as a department head or political adviser.

"A politician is crazy in this county if he doesn't include women," said one woman political activist. Half the elected officials in the county are women, and so was Gilchrist's campaign manager.

Gilchrist insists that he is "deeply committed to women's rights" and that the time will come when he can demonstrate that. "Of course, you know I appointed the county's first black department head (Clinton Hilliard, head of personnel), and I'm very proud of that," the county executive said.

"He will move in measured ways," Sexton, Gilchrist's political adviser and fellow lawyer, said. "He has the ability to meld things together and not take extremes. Maybe no one will be wildly enthusiastic, but most people will end up satisfied."