The White House inner circle is a wheel of fortune, and Jack Watson has just ridden it full cycle.

He is back at the top now -- which is where he thought he was when he first caught hold of the Carter wheel in those heady days of transition planning, before Hamilton Jordan quietly engineered his fall from grace.

He is back at the top now as chief of staff, interim replacement for Jordan. And although it is just for a while, he is happy to be there.


Jack Watson is bounding into the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing of the White House, bubbling a greeting to all as he enters, his feet barely brushing the carpet, his own trademark grin even broader and friendlier than usual. He is just a few minutes late for his first interview since his presidential designation as chief of staff, and his effort at punctuality alone puts him one up on his predecessor.

Beginning tomorrow, Watson will begin presiding over those daily 10 a.m. meetings that the president has with the most senior of his senior advisers. But until now, he had not even been among the half-dozen regulars invited to attend, even though he was officially part of those in that top bracket who have the title of "assistant to the president" and the $59,000 salary that goes with it.

The fall and rise of Jack Watson offers a worthwhile look at pressures at work in the Carter high command.

"You've got powerful turf instincts operating all the time in government," Watson said during the course of his interview Friday with a group of reporters. "The instinct among government workers for turf is about 100 times what it is among gorillas."

Watson was talking about pressures that come to bear on a president. But as he also has come to realize, these same turf presurres are also felt, in centrifugal abundance, within the Carter inner circle. For there was a time, back in the pre-inaugural days of the Carter transition, that life among the gorillas must have begun looking mighty good to Jack Watson. That was just after he had tried to stake out his own turf in the Carter hierarchy -- and wound up having to look up to inspect it, instead.

"What happened to me in the transition was a classic Greek tragedy," Watson would later say. "I do not think, in retrospect, that there was anything I could have done to prevent what happened."

Watson, 41, was a bright young partner in the Atlanta law firm of Charles Kirbo, Carter's close friend and father figure, and it was at Kirbo's recommendation during the fall campaign of 1976 that Carter had Watson get to work on planning for the transition and the structure of the Carter White House that would follow. Jordan, meanwhile, was directing the Carter campaign.

"The president named me director of the transition -- and that was awful," Watson says in a revealing explanation of his view of what went wrong. "For me it was a lethal choice . . . I sort of conceived that Hamilton would not get involved in the planning -- that he was a political strategic planner but that he wouldn't be involved in the overall transition planning. And that was deadly."

After Carter's election, Watson set up a Transition Office that had him at the head of a 50-person force, and gave Jordan a staff of one secretary.

Jordan did not take kindly to this arrangement, and by the time he got done working his way, Watson had all he could do just to hang onto his own spoke in the inner circle and go along for the ride.

"Never again, as long as I live, under any circumstance, will I have anything to do with directing a transition," Watson says in that Roosevelt Room interview.

Watson was left with the job of being the president's liaison to state and local governments and of being the secretary to the Cabinet. He rode back into the good graces of the Carter White House by applying the upward mobile talents that, in years past, had made them the all-everything among his peers.

At Boy's State, he was elected governor; at Vanderbilt, he was elected president of four fraternities and honor societies; the Atlanta Jaycees named him one of their "Five Outstanding Young Men"; the Marine Corps School at Quantico and the Army Airborne School at Fort Benning listed him as an "honor graduate."

He was the boy who married the ballerina, the young man who joined the YMCA and won its pentahlon.

In the White House, his strengths were Jordan's weaknesses. He never became a subject of public controversy. He always returned his telephone calls. He had a ready smile, a kind word and sympathetic ear for every governor and mayor and state legislator -- and they, in turn, would always tell the president what a wonderful fellow Watson was, even as they were venting wrath at those domestic issues advisers or budget advisers who kept telling them no.

Along the way, he mastered that Dale Carnegie technique for winning friends by dropping their names into every conversational reply. He never misses, even in the rapid fire back and forth of an interview, as in these excerpts from that Roosevelt Room session:

"Unquesationably, in my opinion, yes, Wes . . ."

"My expectation, Frank, is that . . ."

"Having said that, Terry, I also acknowledge . . ."

And -- "Andy, I think the most effective thing I can do to help the president get reelected is to do the job of chief of staff well."

Watson is getting to do the job of chief of staff only because Jordan -- who he came to realize was always first among Carter's equals -- is shifting over to the campaign committee to formally take command of the election strategy that he has, in fact, been shaping from the White House all along. He concedes that the job will revert to Jordan once the election is over (and if the election is won).

Still, he speaks with emphasis about how he is going to be his own man, even taking a velvet-gloved knock at his predecessor to make his point:

"To be sure, my operation of that (chief of staff) role will be different from Hamilton's. Our focus will be somewhat different. Our inclinations and interests are somewhat different. . . . I think we can always do a better job of selecting . . . priorities and seeing to it that those priorities and issues are very well staffed before they get to the president.

. . . I think there is always room for improvement in terms of early warning systems . . . I think there is always room for improvement in identifying potential problem areas and potential opportunity areas."

To many of the president's advisers, the designation of Watson as chief of staff does not mean that Jordan has departed. "Hamilton will still be around," says one Carter adviser. Another adds: "Hamilton will still be making the major decisions, I'm sure."

Still others believe Watson was named chief of staff in part because, since he was not part of that wheel within the inner circle, he will not be a threat to others, such as press secretary Jody Powell or domestic policy chief Stuart Eizenstat.

All decisions during a fall campaign are political decisions as well as policy decisions -- should president give a speech on energy, or blast Congress, or give no speech at all? Yet Watson minimizes the role Jordan will have in White House decisions. "I don't think Hamilton will be called upon to evaluate the president's statement on energy," he says.

And, Watson cannot help but reflect on the upward mobility of his White House career as he defines his own task now as trying to determine "how we can make the most of this opportunity."

EPILOGUE: Among the training that Watson brought with him to his career in the White House, according to his official biography, was a stint in the early 1960s at the military's "Escape, Evasion and Survival School." i

"That has great relevence to this whole situation," Watson says, laughing. "It was probably the best training for this job."