It's the middle of a news conference at the Foreign Press Center. Ann Dibble Jordan and Terry McAuliffe, the chairmen of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, sit on a stage briefing dozens of reporters from around the world about the seemingly endless list of celebratory events.

McAuliffe pops off with enthusiastic sound bites, jumping in to answer virtually every question. Jordan sits quietly, carefully offering written remarks. If there were an award for the inaugural chairman with the lowest possible profile, Jordan would win -- hands down.

Her face is dominated by her red-framed glasses. She wears simple gold jewelry, a plain black dress and carries an inexpensive Le Sportsac purse.

"I hate interviews. I hate publicity," she says later. "My husband tells me I'm the most private person he knows."

Herein lies the intriguing contradiction of Ann Jordan: a very private person who lives a very public life. Her husband is the much-respected and much-feared lawyer Vernon Jordan, power broker extraordinaire. The Jordans are on the A-list of every Washington social event, serve on numerous corporate and charitable boards, and count a vast number of powerful people as friends -- including the president and first lady. Indeed, Vernon Jordan is a favorite golfing buddy of Bill Clinton; the couples are so close they had Christmas Eve dinner together.

Shortly after the election, Clinton picked up the telephone and called Ann Jordan. "I need your help," said the president, who asked that she accept the unpaid co-chairmanship. It was an offer she couldn't refuse.

"I didn't think I'd be doing all of this, I tell you," she says. "I thought I'd just be a worker. But I had worked in the previous inaugural, and I'd seen a lot of the things that probably would be helpful in doing this."

Jordan, 62, came aboard just before Thanksgiving, with an eye to creating a structure that was "open and honest." This year, there are no fund-raising responsibilities, so the job of chairman is primarily one of oversight: meetings every morning to go over all the plans, defining goals, and signing off on major decisions and expenditures. When a final decision had to be made, said committee members, it was often Jordan whose judgment carried the day.

And there are also news conferences -- Jordan's least favorite part of the job.

"She doesn't crave the limelight," says co-chairman McAuliffe. "She's just been a joy to work with. She and I have not had one disagreement in the past two months."

"I am absolutely, totally impressed and in awe of her," says Harold Ickes, who is coordinating inaugural plans from the White House. "It is not unusual for someone of her social position to take the job and be sort of honorary about it, sweeping in and out. She does not throw her weight around, although -- God knows -- she knows everyone in Washington and can get anyone on the phone at the drop of a hat."

Of course, in Washington one expects the customary compliments from colleagues. But the genuine exuberance for Jordan goes beyond the predictable.

Jordan describes herself as "quite low-key . . . I know what my limits are." She doesn't mention the gala with Princess Diana or her vacations on Martha's Vineyard with the Clintons. She doesn't bring up the dinner at her home four years ago -- the president-elect's first Washington party -- or the fact that she sent cyclamens to all her neighbors apologizing for any inconvenience it may have caused.

Her official biography for the inauguration is three short paragraphs.

"She's raised in the old school," says events planner Carolyn Peachey, a close friend. "Your name is in the newspaper three times: born, married, died. "

Hillary Rodham Clinton calls her "a woman of many talents." Jordan's work on the inaugural committee, says the first lady, highlights her "wonderful" organizational and management skills. "What I think I like most about her is her warm friendship, coupled with her marvelous sense of humor."

Vernon Jordan is not in the habit of discussing his personal life with the press. But he is downright effusive when it comes to his wife of 10 years.

"She's smart, independent, caring, loyal," he says. "She is my best friend in the world." The suggestion that she is shy produces Jordan's famed booming laugh. "She's not shy at all. She just keeps her own counsel. And she is in many ways a very private person, which is one of her more admirable qualities."

Nonetheless, it is difficult to be an entirely private person if one happens to be married to one of the most influential -- and socially gregarious -- men in the city. It is "just nonsense," says Jordan, to even suggest that his wife was asked to chair the inauguration because of his friendship with the first couple.

"I think she did this out of a sense of duty and responsibility," he says. "She loves to make things work right. And it's an honor, and I think she views it that way."

There is, in fact, a long history of public service in her life. She was born in Tuskegee, Ala., one of five children of a surgeon who ran the only hospital in the city that treated black patients.

Jordan attended prep school and then went to Vassar, where she was one of four black students. She was so fair-skinned that she had to tell classmates she was black. "You didn't want to have a conversation where you had to get up and walk out," she says. "Once you say it, you don't have to tell many more. It goes around quickly."

She took graduate courses in social work at the University of Chicago and later taught there and served as head of social services at the university's medical center. She married, had four children and divorced 11 years later. She stayed in Chicago, working full time and raising her children. "I was used to running my own life," she says.

That life was shaken by the 1981 death of a daughter in a car accident. "I think it makes you just stop and relive your life," says Jordan. "I mean, you think about your life and what's important, and it changes it."

Her other children -- now in their thirties -- were grown when she married Vernon in 1986. They had met years earlier while both were working with the Urban League. His first wife, Shirley, died of multiple sclerosis in 1985.

"What I like best about him is when we sit down to talk -- he's very interested," she says. "And he's fun to be with. He's totally unpredictable."

And Vernon Jordan says, "When I want to get it straight, I talk to Ann."

And then he adds the one-liner of every clever husband: "The fact is that I married up."

Her new husband brought to the marriage the lifestyle of a wealthy, powerful man in this town. "It was sort of nice to enjoy the free time of living in Washington," she says. "It also allowed me to pursue a lot of my own interests. I was very busy. And Vernon is a very -- to say the least -- he's fun."

Being married to Jordan also brought invitations to every important social event in Washington, including the state dinner for South African President Nelson Mandela. "It was one of the great thrills of my life," she says. Mandela told her "a very funny story about his life after he got out of prison. . . . I'm certainly grateful for those kinds of opportunities."

Aside from inaugural duties, Jordan's time these days is devoted to her five grandchildren (all under 5 years old), volunteering in the White House social office and serving on various boards: WETA, Sasha Bruce Youthworks, the Kennedy Center and the Child Welfare League of America.

She has settled into her life in the nation's capital, but her affection for Chicago is such that she travels there as often as once a month. "It's a wonderful city and people don't realize it." Washington, she says, "is a wonderful city to live in. I mean for living purposes, it's very easy to get around, the weather's wonderful, and very interesting people here."

It was Jordan who pushed to include residents of Washington in more inaugural activities. She is most excited about the public events on the Mall, and she was instrumental in bringing "King," the musical tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., to the celebration.

"I love the fact that it can be open," she says. "Not only just free events, but very well done free events." She hopes to find time to drop by the children's tent for the storytellers: "My grandchildren want to see it."

Jordan doesn't mention the glamour of the inaugural balls. She'll attend five or six, wearing a dress that she's had a long time. "I wear it every year to the Kennedy Center," she says. "It's a black velvet dress that has -- I don't know what you'd call 'em, not rhinestones but sort of sparkly" decor on the shoulders. "I love the dress."

On that night, her husband says simply that he'll be doing "whatever she says."

And afterward, instead of all the exclusive after-ball parties, you might see the inaugural chairman celebrating at . . . McDonald's.

"That's my favorite," she says. "A Quarter-Pounder without cheese. Then they have to cook it fresh. We're there all the time." CAPTION: Ann Dibble Jordan, self-effacing co-chairman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Although her husband, Vernon Jordan, is a close friend of President Clinton, her organizational skills are what put her in the planner's seat. CAPTION: Ann Dibble Jordan: "I know what my limits are."