Hamilton Jordan came back to Washington the other day, new book under his natty arm, as sure and as crisp as any young lawyer on K Street. Is this the same Hamilton Jordan who became a virtual public uffoon as Jimmy Carter's chief of staff, the good old Georgia boy who misbehaved all over town? Is this the man who was notorious for not returning phone calls and being, in his own words, "a wise-a -- sometimes?" Or the one whom House Speaker Tip O'Neill referred to as "Hannibal Jerkin" and others said seriously hurt the president he served?

No. He's changed.

"Was I insecure?" he says. "Probably a little bit. I was insecure in terms of being unprepared for the complexity of things. I was filled with self-doubt as I got into the hostage thing. But as I got involved, I gained confidence, and realized there wasn't anything that mysterious about it . . .

"Where I failed drastically," he adds, "is not appreciating that if you work down the hall from the president of the United States, you're going to be a public figure. And I was naive to not be more accessible to the press. Maybe I should have gone to a bunch of parties the first year, just as a symbolic act. People took what I did as a contemptuous act."

Two years ago he slipped out of the city, taking with him the observations of an outsider who seemed afraid of getting too close. Now he's back with the booty: a much talked-about book, not least at the Georgetown dinner parties he so resented, called "Crisis."

Written in diary-form, it's full of the hostage drama, the late Panamanian ruler Gen. Omar Torrijos, the re-election campaign and other details culled from Jordan's last year at the White House. On inaugural morning, for instance, Jordan describes a phone call that Carter made from the Oval Office to Ronald Reagan at Blair House. Afterward, Jordan writes, "everybody in the Oval Office gathered around the desk to hear him recount his conversation with his successor. Looking dead serious, Jimmy Carter said, 'Well, I briefed him on what was happening to the hostages. He mostly listened. But when I finished, he said, 'What hostages?' Everybody cracked up."

Jordan says he doesn't think the book will prove to people that he wasn't a "Georgia hack," but he sounds like he wishes it would. "A few thousand people will read my book," he says, "but the millions of people who have recollections of me will remember Studio 54 and me spitting my drink." He's referring to two now-infamous Jordan escapades. At New York's Studio 54 he reportedly snorted cocaine, a charge never proven; at a Washington bar, he allegedly doused a woman with his Amaretto and cream. There was also the time he was said to have likened the breasts of the Egyptian ambassador's wife to pyramids. But now that the book is out, his friends, like former Carter media adviser Gerald Rafshoon, think it "shows a side of Hamilton that we all knew."

At 38, Jordan has shed a lot of his blustering defensiveness. (Although admittedly, he'll still joke to a photographer who comes to his hotel room, "So you want a picture of me on the bed?")

But he is calmer and smarter about Washington, as if losing it has made him understand what he had. Friends always said he was warm, perceptive and particularly polite toward women, but he seemed to take on another personality here in town. Certainly, that was the public perception, and Jordan didn't know how -- or was too proud -- to change it. His friends still say he was a victim. "One of the real tragedies," says former press secretary Jody Powell, "is that after the first year, he set out to turn things around. He had been named chief of staff, and I'd set up meetings for him to get to know the press, and then, all of a sudden, the Studio 54 thing hit. It just blew everything away."

But on a recent day, Jordan worked the town in a way that would have impressed even Robert Strauss, Carter's honey-tongued campaign chairman. ("One of Strauss's favorite tricks was to call me or the president's secretary to find out when the president had a gap in his schedule," Jordan wrote in his book. "He would then place a call to Carter at that exact time, hoping the president would accept it . . . for the rest of the week Bob could go around town prefacing his comments on any number of things with, 'Well, I was chatting with the president the other day, and I think . . .' ")

"It's good to see you all," Jordan said brightly to reporters at one of Washington's oldest get-togethers with journalists, the Sperling breakfast held by Godfrey Sperling of the Christian Science Monitor. By his side at the table were Powell and Rafshoon, the old team. Later, Jordan added good-naturedly that "I didn't mind Washington knocking my chip off -- but they didn't have to take my whole shoulder with it." He spent the rest of the time kibitzing with political reporters. ("Senator Kennedy has the same problems I had. He has an image problem, and once those perceptions harden, they don't change.") Then he headed for "Panorama," a local talk show, and finally settled down to lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel.

With him was his new wife, Dorothy Henry Jordan, 26. ("She either goes by Dorothy Henry or Dorothy Jordan, depending on how I'm doing," he says.) A striking nurse whom he met on a blind date in 1979, friends say she's "smoothed" him. His first marriage ended in divorce midway through his time at the White House. Earlier, while he was still married, an interviewer told him he'd attract lots of Washington women because of his power and good looks. "I'm ready," he'd said. Nancy Jordan spent a lot of time alone at home, waiting for Hamilton; Dorothy, on the other hand, is traveling with him on his book tour. He alternates between calling her "Doffy" and "Babe."

She isn't at all interested in politics, and while Jordan was at the White House, they usually talked about her work at Georgetown Hospital. "It was kind of like an escape," she says. "When we got together at night, I never wanted him to rehash the day."

"I like that," says Jordan. "So many of the women you meet in this city want to talk about politics--particularly to me."

They order two fruit and vegetable plates, and a Perrier each. "It was good to see all of those guys this morning," he says of the Sperling breakfast. "The adversarial quality is gone. I'm not the White House guy trying to rationalize something we'd done, and they're not trying to nail me. The barriers are down."

But he still seems of two minds about Washington. Later, over the telephone, he says: "Washington is supposed to be a city of compromise. Well, they weren't very willing to accommodate us, or at least willing to meet us halfway. They wanted us to be exactly like them. All those hostesses would have parties with peanuts and tell everybody to wear blue jeans -- and then they'd snicker at us behind our backs."

He says he admires Georgians like Powell who stayed. "Psychologically, I couldn't have done what he did," he says. "Lose the election, stay up here, and then have to deal with reporters. I admire what he's done . . . People thought that I was bitter and mad. Not so. I had just had enough . . . There are so many people in this city who live in the past, who relive the time they were in the Cabinet. I find that sad. I just wanted to move on and do something different."

His book, at least in Washington, has caused a stir. Even the Republicans in the White House are reading it and saying they like it. Newsweek excerpted it, and would have put Jordan on the cover if it hadn't been for the death of Monaco's Princess Grace. One particularly negative review did appear in Sunday's New York Times Book Review, though; Robert Sherrill, a longtime political writer, wrote that "sometimes Mr. Jordan sounds like a downright hick."

Carter himself, stopping in town last week for the Democratic National Committee gala, called the book "competent, perceptive" and added that Jordan is an "excellent writer."

Carter's own book is to be published in November, so Putnam, Jordan's publisher, rushed to get Jordan's out first. "If I'd come out after him, I would have just been lost in his wake," Jordan says. Originally, it had been the book that no publisher was rattling the White House gate to get; most thought Carter and Powell (who's writing a book, too) had more insightful things to say than did Jordan. Not only has Jordan surprised everyone, but word-of-mouth in publishing circles suggests that Jordan's may be better -- or at least much more of a thriller -- than Carter's.

"I don't know if that's true," Jordan says graciously. "A president just can't write about one year like I did." If there is any more subtle competition than that between the former president and his chief of staff, Jordan isn't about to address it. He and Carter talked regularly while both were at their word processors, he says, adding that the relationship "will never be quite the same."

"I miss the contact with him," Jordan says. "I miss the back-and-forth."

Jordan's book, besides describing his unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the hostage crisis through two French intermediaries, contains a number of gossipy tidbits, all observed by a political operative who turned out to have a writer's eye. For instance:

* Steve Smith, Sen. Ted Kennedy's brother-in-law and 1980 presidential campaign manager, is described as "wearing a shiny, light-gray suit that looked as if it had to be polished every couple of days; he looked more like an overdressed used-car dealer than the financial wizard of the Kennedy empire."

* During the Reagan-Carter debate in Cleveland, when Carter announced to millions of Americans that his daughter, Amy, had told him nuclear weaponry was the country's most important issue, Jordan writes that "Jody winced. Rafshoon stood up and clapped his hand to his head. 'Oh my God -- not that! . . . Cartoon artists all over the country are sharpening their pencils . . . It's so bad that it's funny.' "

* Carter was very particular about memos. "He never gave me permission to put my memos on top of everything else in his 'in' box; it was more a matter of my having the nerve to do it," Jordan writes. "Only a few of us -- Jody Powell, Zbig Brzezinski, and Stu Eizenstat--'walked' our memos in when he was away from his office . . . When I was anxious for him to pay immediate attention to something I deemed urgent, I would check and often find that one of the three had put his memo on top of mine. I would then dig mine out and put it back on top. I don't think Carter ever knew how often some of us shuffled papers in this way. And we never admitted it to one another."

* And finally, he writes of citizen Carter's arrival in Plains on Jan. 20, 1981. It was drizzling cold rain. Jordan, so used to White House transportation that he had forgotten to arrange his own, needed a ride to his mother's house in Albany, about 40 miles to the south. "Soaking wet, carrying a briefcase and suitcase, trying not to look too conspicuous, I wandered around for about an hour," he writes. ". . . I was beginning to feel like a hobo. Finally I bumped into an old friend in the Georgia State Patrol who found a patrolman driving toward Albany and arranged for me to hitch a ride. It really is over I thought . . ."

"The experience was just on and off," Jordan says now. "It was like turning a switch. I wasn't mourning the loss of power. I was just dismayed at how quickly the change took place."

He's asked if he'll ever get over the experience of being White House chief of staff so young. "That's like saying I can't ever do anything in my life again that I can't enjoy," he says. "I don't believe that."

"If you come through there when you're 35," says Powell, "at the best -- or the worst -- you're going to be 42 or 43 when you leave, anyway. It's not going to be the culmination of your productive years. He knew that from the beginning."

Jordan says he never planned to stay, even if Carter had won the election. As he said in a 1977 interview, "I don't plan to stay here eight years. I doubt I'll stay four years . . . But I'll never work in a campaign again. I think it's really important to walk away . . . I don't know what I'll do. I'd like to write. I think I've got some raw talent. It frightens me a little, though. I'm not sure what I'd write, I just enjoy it. I'm not very articulate. I express myself better in writing."

He and Dorothy live in Lawrenceville, Ga. "It's not my house," he says. "It's the bank's house. We just stay there from month to month." They have two dogs, Omar and Chu-chu, named after Torrijos and his interpreter and companion, Sgt. Chu-chu Martinez. "Hell, I could have written a whole book about Torrijos," says Jordan.

In fact, he's thinking about a novel. He's a visiting fellow at Emory University and wants to have lots of children, but ultimately, he'd like to write.

In Washington, maybe. Dorothy likes it here.

Washington?

"Sure," he says. "When you're in the White House, it seems to be a one-dimensional city. Everybody talks to their buddies, everybody reads the same papers, everybody goes to the same parties." But if you're not at the White House the city is a different place. "It's one of the few places in the country with such good restaurants and theater," he says. "And charm."

How Hamilton Jordan has changed