EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, in my capacity as a Washington columnist, I get a leaked document. One time it was something that came from the garbage and it arrived with an orange peel clinging to it, but this time it is something taken from the dinner table where it had been brought by high officials of the Carter administration. It is an article from Time magazine.

It is a rough article. It starts by mentioning the problems the president has and how, despite the problems, he seems almost unconcerned, smiling as ever. "No one would suspect, in fact," the article says, "that the whole country was getting ready to dump the . . . administration."

This is pretty strong stuff, but the Carter people, instead of being angered, have taken encouragement from it. The article goes on: "The bad news was spread bluntly in every newspaper. But if this dismayed the men around the president, they, like him, gave no sign but went on smiling -- hoping, as they have so often hoped before, that something would turn up."

Then Time got really nasty. It writes of a "time of great confusion in international affairs" and a presidential performance that is "invariably awkward, uninspired and, above all, mediocre." The president, Time pronounced, "has declined to assume real leadership."

It is time to fess up. The Time magazine article being quoted was not written in 1979 about Jimmy Carter but in 1948 about Harry Truman. It is tempting to read through it, substituting the name Carter for that of Truman because the parallels are so striking. Truman, like Carter, was in desperate political straits and there was hardly a person around -- around Washington anyway -- who thought that he would make it through the primaries and the general election. It is for this reason that the Carter people take cheer from the Time article. Carter, after all, has more than a year before his November.

When you read the article, it seems that some things never change. Truman, like Carter, was blamed for surrounding himself with a tightly-knit group of advisers, most of them from his home state of Missouri. "All together," Time wrote, "these men stand around the president like handlers around a prize fighter, sponging his face, kneading his muscles, giving him advice, keeping the nosy crowd off. Sometimes, it seems to other members of the administration that they stand in the way of more important advisers." One of those young Missourians mentioned prominently is Clark Clifford, today one of Washington's elder statesmen and an adviser to the Carter administration. It's almost enough to make you think Ham Jordan is going to stay in town, become a member of the Metropolitan Club and lear to wear double-breasted suits.

There is more. Truman, like Carter, was seen as squandering his constituency.In the case of Truman it was what he called "the little man." Time found that he had flown the coop: "The man on the street was not content to admire him as just an ordinary guy.From all over the country came a chorus of tired complaint: 'He means well, but he don't do well.' By all these signs, only a political miracle could save the Democratic Party from a debacle in the fall."

It is easy to dismiss the Time article as a gimmick, an accident, but it does sort of stop you in your tracks. People were once so sure of Truman's imminent demise; now they are saying the same thing about Carter. You have to conclude that the obituaries are a bit premature and that the apparent candidacy of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy does not really change that assessment at all. Kennedy thus far has had something of a free ride -- potential candidates don't get the sort of scrutiny real candidates get. Besides that, it is never an easy matter to unseat a president, especially one who is likely to turn a race against Kennedy into a class contest: limousine liberal versus pragmatic populist. At the moment, nothing is settled.

The Carter people have found cheer in the old article. It tells them that political Washington was wrong before. That it was wrong about Truman -- tells them, in short, that they can still win. You can scoff at that, say that Carter is no Truman and that the country is far different now than it was in 1948 when Truman was president and his aide was a lawyer named Clark Clifford. What you can't scoff at is the fact that in 1979 it was Clifford who went to the files and dug out the Time magazine article to give to Hamilton Jordan.

It's been a long time since anyone scoffed at Clark Clifford.

Not since 1948, actually.