Charles Burson had been in Washington just two weeks when insiders began speculating that the Memphis lawyer might be in for one of the shortest White House careers in history.

Seven times that fateful March day in 1997, Burson's boss, the vice president of the United States, stood before the cameras declaring: "My counsel advises me that there is no controlling legal authority."

It was Vice President Gore at his worst--stiff, sweating and awkwardly trying to defend his fund-raising calls in the 1996 campaign. And there was no doubt the legal mumbo jumbo came from the recently hired former Tennessee attorney general.

But Burson lived to tell the tale and laugh about what he describes as his "baptism by fire" in the Washington maw.

"As I told my wife, not many people have been here such a short time and coined a phrase for the American lexicon," Burson recalled. "You've got to have a sense of humor here."

He not only survived the fund-raising flap, he got a promotion. After serving for two years as the vice president's counsel, he replaced Ron Klain as chief of staff in mid-September. In addition to keeping his hands in legal affairs, Burson now oversees about 50 people and helps manage diplomatic relations among "OVP" (Office of the Vice President), the "West Wing" (President Clinton's domain) and "Gore 2000" (the campaign team).

Burson brings to the job a 30-year relationship with the vice president that dates to Gore's college days. Their parents had been friends for years, working to elect Estes Kefauver and then Albert Gore Sr. to the Senate.

After receiving his law degree at Harvard University, Burson returned to Memphis to work in private practice for 18 years, all the while volunteering for a string of local Democrats. In 1984, Gore called, looking for a West Tennessee chairman for his first statewide race.

"We did things like organize car cavalcades," Burson said, describing how he'd round up a collection of Gore supporters to meet the young congressman at the airport and drive en masse through town. "In a room, it wouldn't look like much but as a string of cars it was quite impressive."

Gore won his Senate bid, following in the footsteps of his father, while Burson moved up the legal ladder, becoming president of the Tennessee Bar of Examiners and, in 1988, attorney general, an appointed position.

A burly 55-year-old with just a hint of Memphis left in his gravelly voice, Burson lights up when he recalls the four cases he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It was the pinnacle of my professional experience," he said. Of the four, he says he won three and the fourth was subsequently resolved by the state courts.

After two terms as the state's highest ranking attorney, he decided to return to the private sector in 1997. But a call from the White House made him reconsider. Burson remembers he was so stunned by Gore's invitation to serve as counsel, he called his wife, Bunny, and asked her to meet him immediately at the Parthenon in Nashville, a life-size replica of the real thing.

"It was freezing outside and I was wearing my new cashmere overcoat," Burson recalled. "She just about fell over." The next thought that ran through his mind was how to pay for the coat on a government salary.

These days, when he isn't popping up on the campaign trail, Burson is ensconced in an office previously occupied by Theodore Roosevelt and FDR, when each served stints as assistant secretary of the Navy, at what is now known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Filled with portraits of the two men, the wood-trimmed room was restored to its 1905 splendor six years ago.

The new job has kept him in the line of political fire. In recent weeks, he has helped navigate the pitfalls of Gore's visit to Microsoft Corp., fielded telephone calls from angry centrist Democrats who do not like the vice president's focus on traditional liberal constituencies and given personal tours of Nashville to out-of-town reporters descending on the new campaign headquarters.

Burson also bears an uncanny resemblance to his college classmate, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. Last month, the two appeared at Gore's annual Halloween party as the White House twins. "Separated at Birth," read one sign. "Rejoined at the Beltway," said the other.

Players

Charles Burson

Title: Chief of staff to Vice President Gore.

Age: 55

Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Michigan; master's degree, University of Cambridge; law degree, Harvard University.

Family: Married, two daughters.

Previous jobs: Tennessee attorney general; counsel to Vice President Gore.

Hobbies: biking.

On working in official Washington: "You've got to have a sense of humor here."

CAPTION: Charles Burson, Vice President Gore's chief of staff, handles relations among Gore's office, campaign and White House.