WATCHING Jody Powell work out with the press at Carter White House briefings was like watching Douglas Fairbanks Jr. flash his way through a movie sword fight: thrust, parry, lunge, and skewer as only an expert can.
When the Carter movie ended in 1980, Mr. Powell picked up his opponents' sword and leaped into another fray as syndicated columnist and TV commentator. Now Powell has written a new book, ''The Other Side of the Story,'' in which he duels with the press in his double role. The result is like a sword fight in the hall of mirrors, with Powell taking on the media for coverage he viewed as ''wrong, unsupportable, and unfair'' during the Carter years.
Today the mirror image shifts again as Powell sits for an interview in his midtown Washington office. Powell himself has changed little since the early Carter days, when he and presidential Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine dressed as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. His ash-blond hair is slightly shorter now, groomed back so it doesn't fall boyishly over his forehead. And there is a hint of flint now in the soft blue eyes, which narrow a bit more and a bit longer when he smiles, as though he'd squinted at too many sidewinders out on a desert trail. He still has the quick, wry smile and strong, hard handshake with a lot of pent-up energy behind it.
But gone are the vest worn at briefings, Mississippi-riverboat-gambler style, the rolled up shirt sleeves, the unknotted and fractious tie. Powell, now dapper in a slate-gray suit, crisp white shirt, and striped garnet tie, looks smooth enough for the tube. He is a commentator for ABC-TV and a Los Angeles Times syndicated columnist. He is also plugging his book in interviews.
This book, written in a visceral, witty, often-angry style, has kicked up a dust storm of controversy in the press. Powell devotes whole chapters to documenting what he perceives as errors in covering everything from the Camp David accords to the ''killer rabbit'' affair (when Carter, out fishing, used a canoe paddle to whack a rabbit that he said swam menacingly toward him).
Just as controversial are some comments he makes during this interview on the Debategate investigation, which had just begun when his book went to press with a chapter titled ''On the Trail of the Mole.'' It deals with the purloined Carter White House briefing papers used by the Reagan campaign to prepare for the presidential debates on TV. A federal district judge Monday ordered the US attorney general to seek an independent counsel to investigate possible wrongdoing in the case.
''I'm more suspicious now than I was at the beginning,'' Powell says. Why? ''Because you have this accumulation of the most improbable set of denials and failures-to-recall and inconsistencies. . . . The question that raises immediately in my mind is: Why are they doing this? And why stand up and say things you know people are going to have a hard time believing, unless you have something more serious to hide. . . ?''
As a former presidential press secretary, Powell says he had a ''hard time believing'' that Mr. Reagan himself was unaware the TV debate material came directly from Carter's own briefing book.
Powell says he allows for the possibility that Reagan may have been told ''in such a way that it would preserve some degree of deniability.'' But he adds, ''Well, if that's what happened, then the President's responses have been certainly misleading. It's not an impeachable offense, but it's certainly serious, and it's certainly more serious if it turns out he did know a good bit more about what was going on than he has been willing to admit. . . .''
One of Powell's Georgia friends, Duayne Ritter, has said, ''Jody is obsessed with setting the record straight.'' That's what this book is about. Powell believes the press too often is accountable to no one but itself, and must find a way to regulate itself: to criticize, police, and correct itself. He devotes a chapter to that idea in his book and elaborates on it during the interview. About the recent dissolution of the National News Council, a self-regulating group, Powell says:
''It's a great, unfortunate testimony to the arrogance and insensitivity and unwillingness to subject oneself to even the mildest and most restrained form of criticism. And that's all too common in journalism. . . .''
The answer, he suggests, is not an ombudsman for every print or electric member of the media, but a competitive jury of their peers: ''That the best ombudsman for the Washington Post might be the New York Times, and for the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and for CBS, ABC. . . . I don't mean that in a petty sense, a nit-picking sense. You have to be able to take it, if you're willing to dish it out. But on a major story, when there is a real controversy on whether the facts are right, you have to be willing to go after the sorts of questions that determine whether or not truth has been told, justice has been done.''
One of the best things journalists can do, Powell suggests, ''is not to pretend the profession is without its flaws or there aren't some bad apples in the barrel, but to admit that and try to do something about it. I think that would do more over the long haul to strengthen the credibility of the Fourth Estate and to enable it to resist more effectively that sort of attack (on First Amendment rights under the administration's directive 84) than any other sort of thing.
''Part of the trouble is you get a vicious circle going there in which you have a legitimate concern on the part of journalists about a real threat to the First Amendment's rights and privileges, but it leads to a defensive sort of action which makes the problem worse in the long run, a sense of being less willing to admit mistakes and to deal with legitimate grievances, reasonable criticisms.''
He is sitting in his office conference room with Andy Warhol's red, gray, and yellow-orange portrait of President Jimmy Carter looming big behind him. On the off-white walls are prints by Alexander Calder and Roy Lichtenstein. In the middle of a long black table where Powell sits are several small stacks of his blue-jacketed book, with the words under the title in boldface: ''When the news seemed to me, then and now, to be wrong, unsupportable, and unfair.''
The red pencil, rolling around near his books, is stamped ''Mrs. Powell's class'' - a reminder that his wife, Nan Jared Powell, still teaches school, as she did when he was at the White House. During the three years it took him to write the book, Powell says with a rueful smile, he suddenly understood ''all the old jokes about finding any excuse not to write. . . . For the first year and a half, we had the best-kept yard in Washington. Our roses were pruned and fertilized, their beds were edged. My wife would come home from school and I'd have supper prepared. I'd iron my shirts, I'd polish my daughter's shoes, anything to keep from writing, you know.''
Then when the final deadline was approaching, ''I'd already had one extension , and I thought they'd surely not give me another. Then I'd have to pay back the advance and they'd take my house and my child and my wife and the car and my farm . . . so there was that incentive,'' he says with a grin.
The inevitable question is whether author Jody Powell in his heart feels more like a presidential press secretary or like a member of the press. ''It's both. There was a time, at Reagan's first press conference, before his administration started, when I was interested myself as to what my reaction would be - whether I'd be rooting for the reporters to nail him or rooting for the President to handle the question properly. I found that I was instinctively rooting for the President. Not maybe for Ronald Reagan, but for the President.
''Now it's different. I don't root for either side, for either the press or the President. I view both with a certain degree of skepticism. And I hope I'm in a somewhat better position to make judgments about both, because I've had some experience in both areas. . . . I don't believe it just because the President says it, and I don't believe it just because Sam (Donaldson, ABC White House correspondent) says it, either. (As a columnist), I have felt as free to be critical of news reports as I have to be critical of the administration.''