FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER Thomas "Tip" O'Neill remembers in 1974 trying to pressure House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino Jr. of New Jersey to move faster toward the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.

The atmosphere was charged. The country and the Congress were divided.Rodino, the patient consensus builder, resisted the entreaties of O'Neill and other fellow Democrats. He knew he had to build his case methodically, operate without partisanship and convey a sense of fairness.

"He used to say, `Tip, you're not a lawyer. You're going by political instincts. We just can't do it that way,' " recalled O'Neill last week following Rodino's announcement that he will retire in January after 40 years on Capitol Hill.

"And he was right," said O'Neill. "He was the right man at the right time, and he will always live in the memory of the people."

Rodino, 78, gained national fame and universal praise for his handling of the Nixon impeachment proceedings 14 years ago. But those who have worked with the New Jersey congressman and have watched him over these many years say his legacy is much greater than the Watergate proceedings.

"While the impeachment proceedings were probably the most dramatic, his most significant contribution may be his overall support and leadership for civil and constitutional rights," said Rep. Robert Kastenmeier, D-Wis., who has served on the Judiciary Committee with Rodino for 30 years.

Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said Rodino has been directly involved in every major piece of civil rights legislation enacted during the past three decades, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act of 1966 and the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1982.

And in the past seven years, said Neas, Rodino has played a significant role in preventing erosion of the civil rights gains and in defending the Constitution "against a comprehensive assault by the Reagan administration."

He said Rodino, among other things, helped scuttle proposed constitutional amendments that would have banned abortions and school busing and mandated prayer in the public schools.

"I have been like the young Dutch Boy who kept his finger in the dike to keep the water from rushing over," said the liberal Democrat. "I saw the Reagan agenda as turning the clock back to another era, and that was unacceptable."

Rodino, whose decision to retire opens the way for the election of New Jersey's first black congressman, said he had considered stepping aside several times in the past few years. But Rodino decided on each of those occasions to seek re-election because he "dreaded what could occur under Reagan."

Rodino said he has no regrets now about leaving the job he has held "for over half a lifetime." He said he feels "at peace" and knows it was "the right time."

The congressman said he now has nine months left to mull over his future while simultaneously trying to gain passage of a number of pending bills, including a new fair housing measure. He said he will spend time next year at his son's New Jersey law practice, consider writing his memoirs and weigh any offers that come along.

"I don't think I'd want to do anything on a day-to-day basis," said Rodino. But if there is a Democratic administration next year, Rodino said, he will "be around" if his services were needed.

Over his years in Congress, Rodino said he has seen the pace of activity become more hectic, the process become more cumbersome and the members appear more self-centered and individualistic.

"We should be a more deliberative body than we are today," said Rodino. "We react instead of thinking things out and dealing with the bigger questions."

Despite these changes, Rodino said, he has always tried to keep in mind "the spirit that motivated the founding fathers to bring together a just and democratic society that protected individual rights."

Rodino said another overriding principle has been the need to maintain the public trust and the integrity of the institutions of government. A key to all of this, he said, is the concept that everyone, including presidents, are subject to the "rule of law."

These themes were clearly expressed by Rodino during the Nixon impeachment proceedings and most recently when he served on the Iran-Contra investigating committee.

In addition to basic beliefs, Rodino has been unwavering in his desire to use the government to help the less fortunate in society.

Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., a long-time colleague, said a hallmark of Rodino's career has been his support and care for "the little guy and for persons not allowed to be full partners in American society."

And on top of everything else, said Edwards, "Peter Rodino has been a good man, a nice man, someone who has made life much more decent for all of us."

Alan Parker, the former counsel to the House Judiciary Committee under Rodino, said his former boss "had a feel for what government should do for people" and often worked quietly behind the scenes to accomplish his goals.

He said Rodino was a private man, "not a screamer, a shouter or a backslapper."

"But he had impeccable political judgment," said Parker, now a lobbyist for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. "He has been seriously underrated throughout the years. He was a damn good legislator."

In addition to the civil rights measures, Parker said Rodino worked patiently and tirelessly to successfully eliminate national origin quotas in the nation's immigration law in 1965 and to gain passage in 1986 after years of struggle of a law granting amnesty to millions of illegal aliens.

He said he devoted tremendous energy to anti-poverty legislation, to shaping antitrust enforcement laws and to maintaining and strengthening the federal judiciary.

Rodino, an Italian-American, takes great pride in his successful sponsorship of a bill making Columbus Day one of the three-day holiday weekends approved by Congress.

"He was truly a man of the House," said Parker. "His retirement will be the passing of an era. He has a sense of history and a perspective that is often lost today."

Of course, Rodino had some setbacks in his career.

He pushed the Equal Rights Amendment to the House floor in 1983 but was defeated by six votes. In 1984, the administration and House Republicans, over his objections, gained passage of an omnibus crime bill that took a harder line toward the rights of criminal defendants than Rodino would have liked.

He also saw many of the Great Society programs he supported lose favor, including many plums for urban communities.

But throughout those battles, Rodino's colleagues and aides said he seldom showed anger or rancor, and always took the view that there would be another day to carry on the fight.

While Rodino mingled with the powerful and dealt with some of the biggest and most controversial issues of his day, he maintains that some of his greatest pleasures during the 40 years have come from helping constituents.

"I always felt first and foremost that I had to be a people's congressman," said Rodino. "To be the chairman, I had to be elected to the Congress from my district. It has been rewarding and fulfilling to help people in a small way, whether it was someone who was homeless, someone who was in distress or who had a problem with their Social Security benefits."

"I've seen him get involved in constituent cases. He does it with a relish," said John Russonello, a former Capitol Hill aide. "It is not a bother to him, he likes doing it. You might call it old school politics, but it's not just politics, it's good service.

"He never got Potomac Fever," added Russonello. "He always went home on the weekends. He'd get on the plane back to Newark, see his family, call his New Jersey aide Tony Suriano and then make the rounds. He did this weekend after weekend."

Rodino, a World War II veteran and the son of Italian immigrants, first ran for office in 1946 against veteran Republican Fred Hartley Jr. He lost that race but ran successfully two years later when Hartley, the co-author the Taft-Hartley Labor Relations Act, retired.

In those days, Newark was a thriving industrial city with a large Irish and Italian population. The city, which makes up just part of the 10th congressional district, now has a majority black population and has lost much of its manufacturing base.

In the early 1970s, the congressional district was apportioned to favor election of a black representative, but Rodino consistently won re-election with sizable majorities.

The forces opposing him this year, however, were greater than in the past, and included the state Democratic chairman, a group of black ministers and a number of community and political leaders.

Rodino said he believes he could have won re-election and maintains he did not step aside because of the opposition. While he took it into account, Rodino said, his decision was based on his own personal sense that he had "served his time and purpose."