IN THE WINTER of 1948, with Israel at war for its life, Golda Meir appeared before an audience of American Jewish organizations in Chicago. Two days earlier she had come to the United States from Tel Aviv, after David Ben-Gurion had reluctantly consented to her request to go fund raising. She arrived in New York wearing a spring dress and carrying one 10-dollar bill in her purse. She was sent to raise $25 million, and returned to Israel with $50 million after a cross-country tour. On that night in Chicago, Mrs. Meir told her audience: "A Jewish state will exist in Palestine. We shall fight for its birth. That is natural. We shall pay for it with our blood. That is normal. The best among us will fail, that is certain. But what is equally certain is that our morale will not waver no matter how numerous our invaders may be."

The straightforward eloquence of that statement characterized Mrs. Meir's remarkable career. Few people, much less world leaders, have ever been so clear in what they said and thought, have ever conveyed so strong an impression of courage. The size of her will became an internationally recognized virtue, because her purpose, Israel, has spent its history in danger. But her qualities of mind would have shown themselves under any circumstances, including peace, which she sought as eagerly as any, thought not at any price.

The question, as Clare Boothe Luce raised it in a review of Mrs. Meir's autobiography, "My Life," in The New Republic, is: How did she get so far? Her childhood was full of nightmares; her parents were unambitious and discouraging; she was not conventionally beautiful; she possessed no special talent. How, then, did this plain and plain-speaking girl from Kiev by way of Milwaukee become the foreign minister, prime minister and moral leader of a nation that needed leadership over every other resource? Merely looking at her did not give the answer to that question. On the outside she appeared as Raphael Soyer painted her for the National Portrait Gallery three years ago: a tidy, sturdy woman with sad, loving eyes, seated in a modest dress, in a modest chair.

On the inside was another woman entirely, not in place of, but along side the Jewish grandmother. That woman was the one who had flown out of besieged Jerusalem in an open plane to Amman in 1948, disguised in black Arab dress, on a lone mission to try to persuade King Abdullah to keep the Arab Legion out of the war. It was also that woman who, when urged to remove her daughter from the kibbutz in the Negev, where she was in peril, replied that, if all the mothers took all the children away from the battlements, there would be nothing left to defend. And it was she who wrote at the end of her "Life": "The world is harsh, selfish and materialistic" -- neither a soft judgment nor, from her experience with the world, an unwarranted one.

Mrs. Meir was not harsh, selfish or materialistic. She was practical, selfless, gentle and as tough as she very much needed to be.