MALCOLM BALDRIGE was one of those rare public people who have -- and retain -- a set of strong private values and interests while they are at the top of government, a man who had an individual identity that could not be swayed or otherwise affected by the glories of office. He died while pursuing one of his beloved avocations: rodeo riding. Another abiding interest was the protection of the besieged English language against the advancing hordes of the bureaucracy. It was Mr. Baldrige's brilliant idea, which he put into practice, to rig word processors at the Department of Commerce -- he did this after severe provocation -- to prevent the continued use of "input," "effectuate" and all the rest of that well-known gobbledygook. What we are saying is that he was a very special guy.

As secretary of commerce, he served in a time when American industry and its place in the world were changing with great speed. An experienced corporate manager, he made himself a force for pragmatism in an administration in which the prevailing economic ideas were highly ideological.

He was one of the first people in the administration to recognize the dramatic rise of the dollar, from 1982 to 1985, as a threat to American business. He took vigorous issue with the inane view that the overpriced dollar was a kind of homage the world was paying to the United States. Now, a few years later, there is no doubt who was right in that argument.

As American exports strangled on the dollar's exchange rate, and imports soared, Mr. Baldrige tried to strike a balance between endangered American industries shrieking for protection and the doctrinaire free-traders elsewhere in the administration. President Reagan has usually stood for free trade in principle, but in practice has often interceded in behalf of American businesses in trouble. Mr. Baldrige had a lot to do with that, especially in those cases in which he considered the foreign competition unfair. Accused of being a protectionist, he always retorted that he was defending the distinction between free trade and fair trade, a position that has now become popular among both parties in Congress.

One of the great policy battles in this administration has been -- and is being -- fought over export controls. The Department of Defense, citing national security, has tried to prohibit foreign sales of an extremely wide range of American products, sometimes including items that are readily available from American companies' foreign competitors. Mr. Baldrige and the Commerce Department have contended that the United States is a trading nation that must live by its exports -- now more than ever, because of its mounting foreign debts -- and controls have to be limited to the short list of exports that are genuinely crucial. Mr. Baldrige also seemed to be winning that one.

As a man who had spent his career running industrial companies, he had only disdain for the kind of financial manipulation to which many American companies and their owners have turned in the 1980s in their efforts to get rich. He was one of the few people in the administration who spoke with real knowledge of the importance of performance on the factory floor, and the necessity of strengthening American manufacturing. He knew that this country's prosperity and strength depend ultimately on the skill and quality of its manufacturing. That was probably the public issue about which he felt most strongly at the time of his death.