Watching the nation's governors at their meeting in Washington last week, I kept thinking how much that group has changed in the 20 years I have been covering its sessions. This generation is probably more talented and capable--and certainly more earnest--than the rather lighthearted fellows who gathered in Hershey, Pa., in the summer of 1962 for what was then a casual mixture of partisan politics and play.>

But whatever the 1982 version could claim in superior seriousness and diligence, it lacked the glamour, the energy and the sheer audacity that was supplied at the Hershey conference--and at many others, earlier and later--by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York.

When he walked into the room, things started popping. "His arrival was invariably heralded by the voice, that unmistakable, insistent honking," his former speechwriter, Joseph E. Persico, writes in his newly published memoir, "The Imperial Rockefeller." "He never arrived alone, but in a flying wedge, Nelson striding ahead with easy purposefulness at the point of the angle, while aides trotted at each flank."

He made exactly that kind of entrance into the sun-filled dining room at the Hershey hotel housing that year's conference. It was Rockefeller's sport in those days to throw a strong civil rights resolution on the table and sit back in enjoyment while northern and southern Democratic governors scrapped with each other about the issue.

It was part playfulness and part partisanship, but in Hershey, lame-duck Gov. (now Sen.) Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, who had seen Rockefeller's trick before, got a bit aggravated.

If you want to talk about civil rights, he said, let's have a real talk. And he launched into a mini-filibuster. Then as now, the governors had a tight schedule to keep, so there was consternation for several hours until Pennsylvania's David Lawrence was able to persuade both men to back off and let the game proceed.

I thought about those days, reading Persico's lively book last week, when talk of federalism filled the Washington air. Nelson Rockefeller was out front on that issue--as he was on so many others. He organized the bipartisan political machine that bulldozed the first big federalist initiative, general revenue-sharing, through Congress. And in those casual days, when the governors' conference had no substantial staff resources of its own, his staff put together almost all of what remains, even today, of the organization's federalist platform.

Yet Rockefeller was never chairman of the group. He was blocked by the late Democratic national chairman, John M. Bailey, working through Abe Ribicoff of Connecticut and other Democratic governors to deny Rockefeller a national platform that might have served his presidential ambitions.

These days, the governors treat their chairmanship more seriously--as they do their business sessions--and a Rockefeller could not be blocked so easily. But, as Persico's book so well recalls, it was characteristic of Rockefeller that he could dominate a scene or a process for years and still be denied personal victories.

Certainly, it was that way with the presidency. And that is what makes his life so intriguing: that a man so outsized in ego, in energy, in drive and in accomplishment could, in the end, fall so far short of his goals.

In Persico's telling, it is not a sad story--and certainly not a tragic one. It is, as Rockefeller's entourage always was, a lively affair, full of graceful touches for those within his circle, and scorn for those on the outside.

He had not much use for Richard Nixon, so he could--as Persico tells it--make a nasty crack even about the Nixons' Christmas card. He had so little esteem for Ronald Reagan that he campaigned enthusiastically against Reagan in 1976 even after Jerry Ford had dumped him from the ticket as vice president.

Rockefeller and Reagan were always at odds at the governors' conferences, where they shared center stage--and particularly at the one held aboard the U.S.S. Independence ("The Ship of Fools") in 1967, the year that Time magazine incautiously pictured them on its cover as the Republicans' 1968 "dream ticket."

Rockefeller always bested Reagan inside the governors' meetings, and--as he liked to point out--ran ahead of Reagan in the challenge to Nixon's nomination in 1968.

Recalling him, through Persico's book, I had to think it was probably just as well that Rockefeller did not live to see Reagan president. Nixon was enough. But, Lord, he would have made the governors' meeting more lively last week.