It's a popular theory, the one that has Jody Powell in a fatherson relationship with the president. Popular, romantic, and a little too simple.

"That's not an approporiate characterization of our relationship," says Powell, after pondering it for a while. "He's got sons and I've got a afther, or did have." Still there is nobody close to either Carter or Powell who will not tell you that the one person closest to the president is Jody Powell.

"Jody," says Jerry Rafshoon, "is an extension of Jimmy. But Jimmy is not as much a father firgure to Jody as Jody is a trusted aide. But more than that they are coming from the same direction; they have the same religious backgrounds, the same interests in fishing; they are both very private people. Yet Jody is very objective about Jimmy. Very loyal but very objective."

"Jody goes a long way in putting Carter down," says Jim Wooten, former New York Times White House correspondent. "He'll even occaslionally call him 'that little son of a bitch.' And he'll joke about Carter. But there's a line beyond which you cannot go. It's called loyalty."

Last week, a group of White House reporters got together to give a farewell party for CBS' Bob Schieffer, whe was leaving to go to New York. Everyone got up to make toasts, read telegrams, tell funny Schieffer stories. Finally it was Powellhs turn. He stood up, and anounced he had a telegram to read for Schieffer from Bella Abzug. He held up the telegram and intoned in his husky Southern accent, "Dear Bob, I nevr could get along with the little f--t either. Bella."

"Being close to the president," says Rafshoon of Powell, "he enjoys the presidenths confidence andthat makes him better for the press. It doesn't hurt the president either. But maybe it hurts Jody."

"It's very bad," says Powell, "for the president to have his mood affected by a multituede of press stories. It would warp his mind."

He smiles, puts out his Salem in the already overflowing ashtray and says, "That should be a comment on what iths doing to mine."

It is evening now, and thought the phones have stoippped their incessant ringing, there is still a lost of action in and around his office. The president has just left for Camp David for the weekend and the atmosphere is noticeably more relaxed. Powell is smoking a little less now as the evening grows later. He gets up and pokes the fire, walks around the office a bit, then comes back and sits down at his desk. He talks about whether or not he is an accurate refledtion of the president's mood, a litmus paper, as so many people Believe.

"It's better for me to get mad than for him to get mad," he says. "I try not to get mad but there is a subtle distinction between not action in a way that is contrary to the way he would act and the way I feel."

"Jody's been with Carter for so long," says Hamilton Jordan, "that he can give you the president's probable reaction on almost anything. Stu (eizenstat) and Zbig (Brzezinski) will go to Jody first with something to see what Carter's reaction will be."

"I don't think there's anything unusual about my relationship with the president," says Powell. "if you work for somebody in reasonably close proximity you tend to develop either a strong admiration, perhaps even affaction for them, or loathing. And in my case it's former."

Hamilton Jordan attributes some of Powell's closeness to the president to their campaign time together. "They have spent more time together on a personal level than anybody else," says Jordan. "During the campaigns (for governor and then president) Carter spent more time with Jody than he did with Rosalyann. And when you've bee throught a campaign togehter it's a little like going throught a war together. It's permanent for the rest of your life."

No matter how close Carter and Powell may be, there is still a reserve between them a formality that does not exist between Carter and Jordan or Rafshoon, fopr instance. During the campaign, when the others were calling him "Jimmy," Powell always called Carted "governor" and "sir." And todlay he calls him "mr. Persident."

"I think Jody is a little frightened of Carter," says ABC's Sam Donaldson who covered the campaign and, since the election, the White House.

"As close as they must be, as well as they know each other, he tenses up shake a little, and says, 'yessir, yessir.' He is respectfully wary and he is not relaxed on those occasions with Carter."

Indeed, when the president called during the interview, Powell did stiffen a bit and "yessir" a lot, but at the same time there was a sense of familiarity which precluded fear. Their relationship seems more military than anything else: the general and his trusted aide de camp.

Powell argees that there is a military aspect to the way they deal with each other, both having gone to service academies -- Carter to Annapolis, Powell to the Air Force Academy -- both having been trained to deal with oters in terms of authority. "Although," says Powell, in a self-mocking tone, "I came back from the Academy under less auspicious circumstances to say the least" (a reference to his having been expelled for cheating).

One of the things Powell attributes to the military training is not complimenting people on a job well done.

Jimmy Carter is notorious fore not telling people when they've done a good job; even Rafshoon will admit that Carter is not known for passing out compliments.

Interestingly, Powell's staff say the same thing about him, although they like him personally. He rarely communicates woth them and almost never praises them.

The situation is so apt for both Carter and Powell that the staff of the Press Office has a sign on its wall which reads, "Working here is like wetting your pants in a dark suit. It gives you a warm feeling but nobody notices."

"It doesn't bother me if the president doesn't run around patting people on the back," says Powell with a shrug, just a little bit too careless.

"He's not interested in hearing excuses and he hopes you'll learn something, not make the same mistakes."

"In terms of life style and being well disciplined," says Hamilton Jordan, "nobody could be more different than Jody and Carter. Jody comes in at 10:30 or 11:00 and Carter will say 'good afternoon.' He gets irritated with him but it passes rapidly."

"It's not really the presidnet's responsiblity to make it worthwhile for me to work here," says Powell a bit defensively. "If you really step back and look at it, the job in and of itself ought to be enough to make in worthwhile. All he basically needs to do is be the sort of president and person you can take some pride in working for, dealing honestly and squarely with you. That's really enought."

At this point, Powell gets up and begins pacing in his office. He is trying to rationalize the president's habits, the lack of vocied appreciation.

"The president," he continues, "is not a great dispenser of compliments and the sort who gives a pat on the back every time he sees an aide. Often, with that type of person, after a while you realize it doesn't take long to realize he knows when you've done dwell."

How?

He shrugs again, but doesn't come up with an answer. "I've never really needed that much somebody telling me," he repeats. "But he's extremely considerate when you do something atrocious. And he doesn't abuse his staff. He's careful not to abuse people in front of their peers. People who do that are like folks who kill dogs, that kind of sadistic thing, or people who are to some extent defenseless. The worst thing you can say about somebody is that they don't have the guts to deal with their own frustrations."

He sits back down in his hair in the middle of this monologue, finishes, looks up and stops.

He is asked if it might be possible to talk to the presdient himself about Powell.

"Well," he says, his face beginning to flush, "I won't oppose it but I would feel funny recommending it." His face reddens even more, he stares down at the flkoor, then fumbles for a cigarette. And without looking up, in an almost shy whisper he says, "I'd sure as hell be interested in knwoing what he's got to say."