President Carter found himself in conversation with Robert Strauss the other day, which is to say the president most likely found himself listening.

They were talking about the man both have spoken of variously as if he were their son: Hamilton Jordan.

"There may have been times when you thought about getting rid of Hamilton before," Strauss recalls saying. "But I sure as hell hope you won't let a couple of punks push him out of a job now."

Carter listened to the man who is his all-everything adviser (currently it is Mideast policy), and then he offered his assurance. Jordan will stay as chief of staff, even as he is being investigated because of allegations -- unsubstantiated ones first raised by unsavory people -- that Jordan has used the illegal drug cocaine.

Carter asked Strauss to pass the assuring words to Jordan "because he is really down in the dumps now" (and that, as Carter knew, was an interesting choice of messenger, because the White House is rife with speculation that if Jordan goes, it will be Strauss who succeeds him).

At the Justice Department, officials say it is likely that Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti will soon appoint a special prosecutor to conduct an all-out investigation of the Jordan cocaine allegations -- all of which Jordan has denied. But presidentail press secretary Jody Powell now says flatly that Jordan will not resign and will not take a leave of absence even if a special prosecutor is named.

The question of whether Jordan should go or stay has been a subject of sensitive debate in the Carter inner circle. One senior adviser has urged that Jordan make a clean break of his White House connection and become the chief of the Carter-Mondale campaign, which he is in fact but not in title.

But other senior advisers, including Strauss, have urged that Jordan can proclaim his innocence and stay as chief of staff, where Carter considers his services invaluable. And that is apparently what the president has decided as well. Replacing Jordan while he is under attack "is something that I won't do to be [reelected] president," Carter is said to have told Strauss.

Carter's advisers agree, however, that if it is proved that Jordan used cocaine he will clearly have to go -- and what they fear is that he will have so damaged Carter that if he goes he will, in effect, take the Carter presidency with him.

When the cocaine allegations were first aired, Carter did receive one high-level suggestion that Jordan should be replaced. It came from Jordan. And in the days that followed, Jordan has brooded to some that he has become a political liability to the president.

"I'm hurting him too much -- I've got to leave," Jordan is said to have told one of Carter's senior advisers. And, when the cocaine allegations first surfaced a month ago, Jordan initially told the president much the same thing.

In that conversation, according to Powell, Jordan told Carter that he had never used cocaine -- but that he was concerned about how the matter would be treated in the press and that maybe for political reasons he should just resign.

Carter would have none of that, according to Powell.But there are a number of persons on the White House staff who fear that the charges against Jordan might prove true and certainly will prove politically damaging to an already politically embattled president.

A number of White House staff members believe that if Jordan did not use cocaine that he liked to consort and cavort with people who occasionally did.

"I'm afraid this is going to be one of those things like the Bert Lance affair that will just not go away," says one senior adviser. "And although it's not fair, the question this time will not really be did he do it or did he not."

The country apparently will be faced once again with the specter of a White House chief of staff being investigated by a special prosecutor.

This time the special prosecutor will be investigating because of a post-Watergate law that has now been applied to a very un-Watergate thing.

A quick chronology:

In 1978, in a rush of post-Watergate morality, Congress enacted the Ethics in Government Act, which was intended to assure that government crooks could be brought to justice even if they were at the pinnacle of power. It said that any time anyone alleges any wrongdoing by any top government official, the Justice Department must investigate -- and if Justice cannot show the charges to be unsubstantiated with 90 days, a special prosecutor must be appointed to investigate.

Enter, the two owners of New York's Studio 54, disco of the radical trendy, who apparently are trying to use this law that was designed to bring government crooks to justice to free themselves from the clutches of the feds. After being indicted on federal tax evasion charges, they came forward and presented themselves as men of conscience -- all of it questionable -- reporting that Jordan had used cocaine in their disco in April 1978, more than a year before they decided to report such illegality.

The Studio 54 owners want to plea bargain -- to trade their testimony against Jordan for a break on their tax charges.

It is not the sort of case any prosecutor would go after under normal circumstances, Justice officials concede. The crime, for first possession of cocaine, is only a misdemeanor. And no one has confiscated any of the cocaine, so it would be hard to prove just what it was that anyone had nostriled.

But these are not normal circumstances, and because of the new ethics law Justice has had to investigate, and the press was duly informed of what was happening.

This presented a new dilemma, one that troubles those in the media as well as those in government.

The press knows that the Justice Department is investigating Hamilton Jordan on these cocaine allegations that so far are unsubstantiated. Should word of the investigation be suppressed? No, the press could do that, but it would be wrong, that's for sure.

Out in California, news of the alleged wrongdoing in New York in the spring of 1978, suddenly triggered memories of parties that occurred even earlier -- in the fall of 1977.

In Houston, singer Lou Rawls' ex-wife, Lana, a woman who had once hoped to make it big in Hollywood, recalled that the night before the Wyler party, she had been given $500 by a member of the Jordan party to buy cocaine for the group, and that she had seen Jordan using cocaine.She will testify, but only in exchange for immunity.

This is the most serious of the allegations, and it is now being investigated by the FBI. But the Hamilton Jordan affair continues to attract media attention, and that is what concerns the Carter White House most of all. The CBS evening news, for example, devoted one-quarter of one news show to a California party, where no cocaine-sniffing was seen but where Jordan and some Carter aides were said to have entered with several women and conducted themselves in a manner that was said -- with emphasis worthy of "The Music Man's" Professor Harold Hill -- to have been "licentious."

And that gets around to what may be the one indictment that can stand unchallenged against Jordan -- even if he is innocent of all legal crimes. It is an indictment of personal conduct -- no crime, but something he stands guilty of even in the eyes of those who know him and like him best.

Jordan changed his public stature significantly when he came into the White House at the age of 32 as a top official to the president. But those close to him concede that he has not changed his private lifestyle appreciably since his days at the University of Georgia, when he was spraying mosquitos as a summer job and when he first met Jimmy Carter.

So he became known for his social behavior -- in some reports that were accurate and some that he swears were not.

As Jordan's ESCAPADES became -- perhaps unfairly -- a subject of gossip columns and Johnny Carson jobkes, he vowed that he was leading a quieter life. But then, during presidentail summit meetings overseas, he would show up late at night in hotel lobbies with a beer bottle in hand and a blonde in tow, turning down journalists' requests for interviews because, he would say, he had more important things to do.

He lived in those days with Tim Kraft and Patrick Caddell, in an expensive Georgetown home (with a spacious patio and pool), and in a carefree bachelor lifestyle. Eventually, upon the advice of elder administration insiders, he moved into his own apartment.

Jordan is being made to answer now for all that he did, with too little distinction being made between whether what he did was illegal, immoral or impolitic.

EPILOGUE: Different strokes. The party was for Halloween, and in the heady days of Richard Nixon's first term, the White House aides and reporters who happened to be with the president in San Clemente were invited to attend. The crowd was suitably arty, at this gathering in the nearby foothills of Laguna Beach, and by mid-evening the living room air was already thick with the sweet smell of an Acapulco weed when the first batch of the Nixon aides arrived, led by young press secretary Ron Ziegler.

A reporter there, no friend of Ziegler's, urged the press secretary to take a deep breath. Ziegler breathed. "Jesus, thanks," he said, and he spun on his heel and gave a follow-me sign with his right hand, and quickly led the startled Nixon group out of the party and into the night.