Jimmy Carter's White House staff, although not complete, is largely in place in the West Wing of the White House and in the Executive Office Building. It is, on the whole, young, dominated at the top by Georgians and not radically different in organization from the staff of Gerald R. Ford.
It is a staff without a chief, as Carter promised, but among those young Georgians one man appears to have positioned himself to emerge ultimately as first among equals -- the President's longtime aide and campaign director, Hamilton Jordan.
Jordan, 32, and his immediate staff make up what is known as the "political coordination" unit within the White House.Its duties are as general and loosely defined as the unit's title suggests, and therein lies the key to its potential strength as the first weeks of the Carter administration turn into months and years.
Other presidential assistants have defined responsibilities in specific areas -- Zbigniew Brzezinski for foreign policy, Stuart Eizenstat for domestic policy, Jack Watson for the Cabinet and intergovernmental relations, Robert Lipshutz for legal matters.
But Jordan and his staff -- dubbed "Hamilton's Boys" by columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak -- are the political generalists of the White House. Their influence is likely to increase as the competition for access to the President by other presidential assistants, each with his own areas of specilization, grows.
Two former Ford White House aides familiar with both the inner workings of the White House and the personalities of the Carter operation agree with this assessment and use the same words to describe their view of the Carter White House. Jordan, they say, "has his hands on all the right levers."
The levers they speak of have to do with controlling the flow of information to and from the Oval Office, whether in the form of writing or personal appointments.
The constant flow of paper to the President is being monitored by Rick Hutcheson, a 25-year-old Carter campaign worker who is now an aide to Jordan with the title of staff secretary.
Carter's schedule and personal appointments are funneled through Tim Kraft, 35, who was the director of field operations for the Carter campaign. Although not technically a part of what one White House aide called "Jordan's empire," Kraft is clearly aligned with Jordan even if he is not directly responsible to him.
These may seem like arcane matters but ultimately they have to do with power and influence in the White House.
The trouble is that if you're not astride the people and paper flow you spend so much time just kibitzing." one Ford aide said. "Everything is so far down the road by the time it gets to you, you can't influence it."
Another Ford aide put it this way: The guy who does not receive paper for comment is a eunuch. Unless you are getting the stuff before the President sees it, you're out of it."
Jordan has spent the first weeks of the administration immersed in what the probably the most sensitive and in the long run most important decisions being made now in the Carter White House -- the selection of key personnel below the Cabinet level throughout the government.
It is Jordan and his staff who are making the initial selections, delicately balancing all the political interests involved, checking with Capitol Hill and other power centers before Carter makes the final decisions.
With these functions and his closeness both to the President and the flow of the decision-making process inside the White House, Jordan could hardly have a more central role in the fledgling administration. Yet the Carter White House is extraordinarily sensitive to any suggestion that Jordan is the emerging strongman of the West Wing who will assume the function of chief of staff if not the title.
He is, they insist, just one of the "spokes of the wheel," one of seven equal senior presidential assistants. The sensitivity goes so far that when it was pointed out to Jordan's deputy, Landon Butler, that the White House staff phone directory lists Hutcheson as part of the political coordination unit, Butler said the phone directory was wrong.
Hutcheson is portrayed as a scrupulously neutral conveyor belt of written communications around the White House with perfectly even loyalty to the entire senior staff. Hutcheson himself has described his $37,800-a-year job in terms that make his functions sound like little more than those of a clerk.
Kraft, too; insists he is operating independently while coordinating the President's schedule with the entire senior staff and not working particularly closely with Jordan.
Moreover, the evidence to date indicates that this is true. Jordan recently told a visitor that Jimmy Carter's White House is like Jimmy Carter's state capitol in Atlanta, marked by a loose and congenial relationship among aides who have worked together for years and who are equal in Carter's eyes and their own.
But this easy atmosphere has had its price. Outside the White House looking in, there is a general perception that the Carter operation is still in disarray. It is a perception that grows out of a trail of unreturned phone calls and broken appointments, of still unfilled high administration jobs, of the sound of harassed presidential aides rushing from one meeting to the next.
The perception is reinforced and confirmed by a Carter aide who quotes holdover White House personnel who have seen administrations come and go. Those veterans describe the first few weeks inside the Carter White House as the most disorganized and chaotic in memory.
Butler says he can't believe that is true.
"Maybe it's a matter of personal style," he said. "By nature this organization is made up of scramblers. We've been scrambling for two years."
Perhaps so, but a question remains on how long the President -- who prizes "tough, competent management" as a hallmark of his administration -- will be satisfied with the appearance that he is presiding over a White House that is barely under control.
Carter is a man of meticulous habits who insists on orderliness and promptness in his day. The outline of his daily schedule is laid out two weeks in advance. Within that outline, Kraft has constructed an elaborate scheme of "time blocks" totaling 55 hours a week for the President to see people such as Cabinet secretaries and to perform other functions.
So long as the loose staff structure functions reasonably well, Carter may be satisfied. In any event, the President's own personal style and the organization of his White House are likely to continue to evolve and change for months to come. Ford aides point out that it took them from August, 1974, until December of that year before they could even announce an organization structure.
But whatever changes come, Jordan's role seems certain to remain central.He recently told a group of reporters that when the rush of making administration appointments finally dies down he would like "to spend a lot of time trying to see that certain things work right."
He mentioned specifically such matters as paper flow and scheduling, the concerns of a man who intends to remain at the center of power. "I hope to have time," he said, "to reflect and plan beyond the next day."
In his reflections, Jordan may occasionally recall a trophy that was left behind for him at the White House by Richard B. Cheney, President Ford's chief of staff.
The Ford aides, reacting like the Carter aides have to the horrors of the Nixon White House, talked about a "spokes of the wheel" arrangement themselves. At a farewell party that was also attended by Donald Rumsfeld, Ford's first chief of staff, Chenney, was given a bicycle rim with its spokes battered and mangled into a jumble.
On the rim was a plaque that read: "The Spokes of the Wheel: A rare form of artistry as conceived by Donald Rumsfeld and modified by Richard Cheney."
On the day Jimmy Carter was inaugurated, Cheney left the rim in his White House office, which Jordan now occupies, and attached to it a note. "Ham," it said, "beware the spokes of the wheel."