"There is a perception in the country." said columnist Jack Germond, "that Jimmy Carter is in trouble." And, added Germond as an aside, "I don't mean the same kind of trouble that teen-age girls get into."

Jody Powell didn't miss a beat.

"In some cases," said Powell coolly, "at least figuratively, the cause can be the same."

There was a slight pause as people caught on, then the audience howled. Jody Powell was off to a good start.

It was certainly the best-attended panel of the week's gathering of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The East Ballroom of the Washington Hilton was packed yesterday.

After all, Jody Powell, Hamilton Jordan and Midge Costanza had actually agreed to come and talk about "Life Behind the Gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" and then take questions from the audience.

Nobody knew quite what to expert. Would Hamilton gross out the audience? Would Jody get furious and insult the questioners? Would Midge let fly with a series of off-color one-liners?

It was the kind of cynical banter one inevitably encounters when media meets big government, the expected humor which accompanies the adversary roles of the two estates.

There was an air of excitement in the audience, a titillation. It was something like going to watch the Flying Wallendas. You never know.

It was clear the panelists knew they were on display, were more objects of curiosity than anything else. Still someone had decided that it would be to the advantage of the White House for them to appear.

They sat in chairs facing the audience, the questioners on one side, Washington Post editorial writer Meg Greenfield, the moderator, on the other, Powell wore a handsome three-piece tan suit with a crisp white shirt and a brown striped tie. Jordan was in a navy suit, pink shirt and maroon tie. Costanza wore a simple white dress and black shoes.

Powell was asked by the other two to make the opening statement. Standing at the podium, he told the audience he was reminded of a well-known statement by a Chicago News reporter in the 1860s who said that the "duty of a newspaper is to print the news and raise hell."

"I am forced to concede," said Powell, "that after 115 years you are 50 percent there."

Jody Powell has changed since he came to Washington. But then so has Hamilton Jordan. Powell, once diffident and self-effacing, has faced the liens daily and his style today is cool, tough, confident and sophisticated. He said "ain't" at least five times during the panel, a sort of "southern-is-beautiful" gesture.

Jordan, on the other hand, has been more remote. He first came to Washington cocky and flip. But now he has a subdued, almost apologetic public manner.

One of the first qestions was the one everyone was planting for: About Jordan's private life.

"Can't you wait a little longer?" asked Jordan, sliding down in his seat a little. Then, "Jody wrote out any answer."

He paused.

"I feel," he said, "I've already sacrificied a lot in this job. My first year in office I was told by the press I would do well to go out." A slight titter from the audience.

"And I did that. I've had things happen that were not true. All I can say is that they were not true. Dick Cheney told me to keep a low profile. I've been an abject failure. I'd hoped my deportment would not be an issue."

"I am a person," he said plaintively. "I have a private life. I realize I have to sacrifice my private life. But now I'm very reluctant to go to functions because my comments might be misinterpreted or blown up. I find it difficult to have a private life."

He said he'd tried to follow advice to get out more, and that he realized that certain people in the administration could benefit by going out and mixing socially.

"I don't feel put upon," he said. "I don't feel defensive. It was certainly not my intention to have a high profile. And I cant do anything but deny reports about me. But," he said, "the political press has been fair to me."

In response to what advice Jordan gives the president on foreign affairs issues, he replied, "My role in foreign affairs is peripheral. He (Carter) does not turn to me and say, 'Hamilton what do you think? I'm not that qualified to give substantive answers. I'm involved in the process to take into account the domestic political implications."

When Powell was asked if he felt that the press had portrayed the Georgians as bumpkins and rednecks he laughed.

"I don't have particular sensitivity to that any," he said. "And I have no feelings of inferiority because of my southern background. Quite the opposite. As in most situations it's not a case of malice and mischievous intent. Just insensitivity and crudity. But I know," he said to the questioner "whereof you speak."

Powell and Costana fielded questions about the president's programs on minorities, carefully saying nothing, then Powell and Jordan defended the president's and their own position on Bert Lance, insisting that he was always had been and always will be, no matter what - "a friend."

About the recent reported White House staff shake-up, Jordan responded, "It is time to periodically review the way you function. We've done some things well, some things poorly. At times we could have been more effective in communicating our priorities to the American people."

Costanza admitted that in the past year she had met with over 300,000 people. "And I have not been able to give as much attention to any issue as I would like to."

"I need," said Costanza, "a new focus. I believe a lot of my attention and focus should be on the women's issue."

Asked about the difference in coverage between the print media and television, Powell admitted that often it seems as though they are giving more attention to television. "I'll be very frank," he said, "the networks have such tremendous power, they reach a mass audience and it happens so quickly. It's like having a great big elephant behind you, and you never know when he's going to step on you. And if you miss with those jokers your brains and eyeballs will be all over the pavement and you'll never know what hit you. So the tendency is to be too conscious of them." But he did say that the actual time spent with the print media "exceeds that of TV."

Having earlier Iambasted a New York Times correspondent, Powell then got a bit philosophical, revealing an insight honed by 15 months in office.

"Y'all are like us," he said. "Your mistakes are based on natural human frailty. You're more lazy when you ought to be more dedicated, indifferent when you ought to be concerned, dumb when you ought to smarter."

"We ought to be less inclined," he said, 'to attribute malice. We ought to realize that those people over there (journalists) are just as sorry as we are."

The last question came from the audience with a plea from Powell for "no more of these softballs."

It was a question about Powell's chain-smoking, and Jordan's drinking.

"I feel," said Powell, "that somebody's got to keep the electoral votes in the tobacco states. And everybody's got to have one vice. I'm going to try not to lie, cheat and steal."

"What was the question?" asked Jordan, looking a bit uncomfortable. "Oh, yeah. I had a cute answer but I forgot it. Well, somebody said the two most overrated things in Washington were home cooking and my private life."

Usually I have orange juice for lunch...and I don't spit it."