It is not every general who gets asked by the secretary of defense what his final dream assignment would be.

But that's what happened to Gen. James L. Jones, who took over this month as commandant of the Marine Corps. The question was popped months ago, during Jones's 2 1/2-year stint as senior military aide to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

"When I was asked awhile back what I'd like to do at the end of my career--did I want to be a [regional commander] or a service chief, how did I look at things--my answer was that at the end of the day, if somebody would ask, I'd like to finish my days with the service I started with," Jones recalled during a recent lunch.

Cohen and Jones have known each other for 20 years. They met when Cohen was a Republican senator from Maine on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Jones, a major, was just beginning a five-year stint representing Marine Corps interests on Capitol Hill. Jones was introduced to Cohen by John McCain, then a Navy captain, now a Republican senator from Arizona and a candidate for president.

Jones has many good friends on Capitol Hill. In fact, such longstanding political ties have given him a reputation as one of the best-connected officers in the Pentagon. It's a reputation that hasn't hurt in a Marine Corps so dependent on congressional support for keeping it from being stomped on by the Army, Navy or Air Force, all much larger services.

"We know that staying close with Congress is our traditional bread and butter," said Col. Gary Anderson, chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. "One thing I think everybody likes about the general is that he has excellent relations on the Hill."

Still, in laying out his agenda as commandant, Jones focused not on his politicking but on the high priority he said he intends to give the "operating forces"--those Marines who actually hit the beach and fight. He is worried about budgeting trends that, he said, have bled these combat units to pay for expansion elsewhere--in larger headquarters structures, for instance.

"If people want to call me a political general, they can do that," Jones said. "But my heart is in the operating forces. I grew up there, I commanded there, I fought there, I've always believed that operating forces should not be the bill-payer for everyone else's good ideas."

This kind of let's-put-the-warfighter-first talk goes over well among Marines, even if no one can tell yet what non-operating units stand to lose.

"He's stuck his neck out on this one; this is not an idle comment," said Arnold Punaro, a two-star general in the Marine Corps reserves and a former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director. "Somebody is going to have to move from somewhere else."

Jones, 55, knows something about combat as well as politics. A Vietnam combat veteran with silver and bronze stars, he has held a string of command positions, from company up to division level.

Providing some glimpse of how he intends to lead, Jones has issued a 15-page "Commandant's Guidance," introducing his vision to the Corps. It is largely philosophical, with long passages on the importance of trust and cohesion and what it means to be a Marine. Missing is the kind of checklist of problems and specific timetable for taking action that his predecessor, Gen. Charles C. Krulak, drafted immediately after he took command four years ago.

But the tall, soft-spoken Jones is about as different from the diminutive, kinetic Krulak as two commandants could be. Krulak was rarely shy about speaking his mind, whether opposing mixed-gender training, blocking a loosening of rules against adultery prosecutions, or questioning NATO's air war against Yugoslavia. Jones is less likely to find himself publicly out of step with his fellow chiefs or at odds with the White House.

"He's not flamboyant; he's kind of almost a Gary Cooper type--strong, powerful, silent," said retired lieutenant general Bernard E. "Mick" Trainor. "Krulak tended to be hyperactive. This guy is much steadier, and I think he's going to be more cautious and more sensitive to the larger political and military environment outside the Marine Corps."

While he credits Krulak with strong leadership--including giving the Marine Corps a renewed sense of post-Cold War mission by stressing its role as a crisis-response force--Jones has quickly begun to signal a more flexible, participatory style of management. He wants to do away, for instance, with what he considers a tendency toward excessive rule-making, saying Marines can be trusted to do the right thing.

"Implicit in this philosophy is the conviction that we do not always need regulations that 'spell it out' for us in agonizing detail," he wrote in his new guidance.

He also invited greater initiative from the bottom up.

"In the past we relied excessively on top-to-bottom instruction, the old 'if the Marine Corps wanted you to. . . . they would have. . . . ' way of life," Jones wrote. "We cannot continue to operate with that mindset." Orders, he added, must "stop short of telling Marines exactly 'how' to accomplish the mission, step by excruciating step."

As a sign of how new approaches may be applied even to some of the oldest traditions, he declared an end to announced inspections.

"Instead," he asserted, "they should become no-notice operational readiness inspections that provide a candid--and thereby more accurate--assessment of a unit's performance, and also eliminate tedious inspection preparations that are costly in time and effort."

He also indicated changes are in store for the way Marines train.

"Regrettably, it appears that we often conduct training as we do because 'that is the way it has always been done,' " he wrote. "We cannot afford to continue in this manner."

CAPTION: Gen. James L. Jones, who became the 32nd commandant of the Marine Corps July 1, testifies at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month.