In 1969, an American walked on the moon, the government recorded the last budget surplus this country has seen, Richard Nixon was beginning the end of his political career, and a 29-year-old Wall Street lawyer named Anthony Stout was laying out a prototype for a new national magazine on the floor of his New York City apartment.

Last night that magazine, National Journal, toasted its 15th anniversary at a tony party that appropriately documented the rise in prestige and power the magazine has accumulated over the years. It was the crowning glory for a publication that could easily be called a financial fledgling for its first decade. This year it will show a profit in excess of a half-million dollars.

"The guest list," said Journal chairman Stout, "is proof that we have accomplished what we set out to: develop a nonideological magazine for the right and the left and the middle."

Among those from both sides of the political fence drifting across the expensive oriental rugs at the F Street Club were Sens. John Warner (R-Va.), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and David Durenberger (R-Minn.), Rep. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.), former Carter administration aide Stuart Eizenstat, White House counsel Fred Fielding, journalist Nancy Dickerson, and Robert McNamara and Joan Braden.

"This publication," said John Fox Sullivan, the publisher, "is written and edited for those who play the game."

Take these testimonials from the party, for instance:

"I was one of the first subscribers back when Tony was sending them out for free," said Wirth. "That was when I was still in Denver and I found it the best way to keep in touch. I'm still a subscriber, only now I pay for it."

"It's the best political journal in the U.S.," said Eizenstat, who headed Carter's domestic policy office. "It has the most in-depth coverage on a wide range of issues. It's essential reading."

"I read it all the time," said Fielding. "I always read the index first."

One distinctive characteristic of the National Journal is that it cannot be purchased on newsstands. It's known as a very expensive ($456 per year), highly detailed weekly chronicle about the government, written for political and news junkies who can't seem to get enough. It's easily recognized by the brown and white cover (a color scheme patterned after the shoes of one of the original editors), perforated by two round holes for easy binding.

Today, the magazine is essentially run by the triumvirate of Stout, Sullivan and Richard Frank, the editor. Roger Kranz, who founded the Washington Journalism Review, was hired a few years ago to market the magazine and, for the first time, offer space for advertising.

In any given week, the magazine may publish a profile on a new congressional committee chairman and articles on the Middle East and the economy, as well as a gossipy, regular feature called "Washington's Movers and Shakers." Last summer, NJ put itself in neon on the media map by publishing daily newspapers at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. It also discovered the crises of daily journalism when, one week before the Democratic convention, the publishers were denied permission to distribute inside the Moscone Center.

"We ended up hiring people from a halfway house to pass them out outside the center," said Stout. "I don't think there was one person going inside who wasn't approached by a big ex-con or former drug addict . . ." NJ later made a donation to the halfway house.

Stout said he got the idea for NJ when he was an up-and-coming attorney at the prestigous firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy.

"It seemed to me that I couldn't get, from any printed source, a real sense of what was happening in the government process, and assumed there were a lot of other people like me around the country who needed a serious nonideological publication," said Stout earlier yesterday.

So he quit his job, and with an initial investment of $2 million, the first issue was published Nov. 1, 1969.

"I had no salary for the first four years, and many weeks we paid people out of our own pockets," he said.

Ultimately, the organization was forced to face bottom-line reality. In 1982, it sold its first ads.

"We were not interested in having it become another Time, Newsweek or U.S. News," said Sullivan. "It was a difficult decision. We spent two years talking about it and researching it."

"To put it over the top, John invited me to lunch by his pool and said, 'We talked enough, I now propose that we do it,' " said Stout. "He predicted then -- and he was correct -- that 'either it would be a flop and you'll ask me why the hell we did it, or it'll work so well you'll want to know why we didn't do it sooner.'

"It's been great fun," said Stout, "and it's also been a miracle."