In his death, as in his life, Nelson Rockefeller was remembered yesterday more for the money he inherited, the energy he brought to his quest for power, and the defeats he suffered than for the victories he gained.

The thread that ran through the messages from San Clemente, Cairo, Camp David and elsewhere was that, as the scion of one of the nation's richest and most powerful famflies, not much was really expec ted of him but he had risen above his birth.

"Nelson Rockefeller inherited great wealth," said Richard Nixon, his old adversary in the Republican Party. "But to his eternal credit, instead of sitting on the sidelines living it up, he plunged into the political arena, where he enjoyed great victories and suffered disappointing defeats."

President Carter, vacationing at Camp David, Md., said Rockefeller "was born to privilege and accepted his privilege as an obligation to serve his state and nation. He sought the highest service, but willingly and ably performed whatever tasks were asked of him by his country."

Rockefeller, a former vice president and four-term governor of New York, died of a heart attack Friday night in New York. He was 70. He will be cxremated and buried in a private ceremony on Monday.

As happens after the death of any wellknown and powerful person, the statements of praise and condolence poured in all day yesterday from the wellknown and powerful who had crossed Rockefeller's path.

Former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, a longtime ally and beneficiary of "the greatest American I have ever known... the world will be without his faith and compassion." faith and compassion."

Former president Gerald Ford, who picked Rockefeller as his vice president, said: "I have lost one of my closest friends, both personally and politically. ... The world has lost a statesman with vision, understanding and wisdom."

The remarkable thing about the comments was that some of the most touching came from old political adversaries and from people one might have expected to be at odds with a man of enormous family wealth.

"The trade union movement has lost a good friend," declared George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO. "Nelson Rockefeller was a fine and decent man who understood the problems and aspirations of working people... He brought humor and class to public life."

Sen. Barry Goldwater (R.-Ariz.), who defeated Rockefeller for the Republican presidential nomination in a bitter 1964 race, said: "Although we had our policy differences, I came to understand that very few Americans were as dedicated to the welfare of their country as was Nelson Rockefellex."

Another intraparty rival, Ronald Reagan, the former California governor, said; "He brought a lively dimension to American politics. While we had our political differences, I always admired him for his convictions. Nelson Rockefeller put all of himself in anything he tackled. He never did anything halfway."

Although he won four terms as governor of New York, he failed three times to win his most coveted prize -- the presidency. And he was appointed vice president only after scandal had driven both Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, from office.

So, when the powerful remembered him yesterday, they thought of defeat not victory, of failed hopes, not realized ones.

"There was not a more generous man in American politics," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D.-N.Y.), "and yet we were never as good to him as he was to us. May God bless his soul."

It was Rockefeller's flair, the energy and vitality he brought to politics that drew the most comment. "Even going against the grain of his own party, he held his head high, and accepted defeat without bitterness," said Rep. John B. Anderson (R.-Ill.). "It was our fortune in the end that such a gifted man so gladly sacrificed the privacy and rewards of his personal life to devote himself unflinchingly to the slings and arrows of public service, and that he did so with such memorable style."

"He knew how to lose with grace and win with enthusiasm," said President Carter. "He drank deeply of life from a full cup."

Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), a longtime Rockefeller ally, called him "one of America's most distinguished sons."

Spokesmen for Colonial Williams-burg in Virginia, which Rockefeller's father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., founded, praised the former vice president for his generosity; Egyptian President Anwar Sadat expressed sorrow over "the loss of a man who contributed to the efforts of establishing peace" in the Middle East.

In New York, United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldeim called Rockefeller a "constanst and devoted friend" of the world body.

"He was instrumental in the decision to establish the headquarters of the world organization in New York City, where it was through his and his family's efforts and generosity that the present headquarters site was made avaiable," Waldheim said.

Republican National Chairman Bill Brock said Rockfeller "served his state and h is nation with enormous energy, ability and enthusiasm. He had a strong and positive effect upon his party and those who knew him."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Rockefeller's most important role "was in helping to restore the faith of the country in its system of government after the Watergate episode."