As it comes to all presidents, so has it come to Jimmy Carter. Whether early or late, the press becomes the enemy. It is a scourge, a devilish contrivance to undo all that is good for the country, not to mention for the public posture and the peace of mind of the man in the White House.

The lesson is all the more painful if at the outset the press had been generous, beneficent even. Then to find that all along you've been nourishing a viper is a discovery hardly to be endured. It is at some such point that the president and the men and women he brought into the White House now stand.

As recent history has shown, the reaction to this discovery can have a lot to do with the remainder of the president's term. Fighting it with reprisals, rewards and penalties is almost certain to do more harm than good. To endure and endure and endure what has come to seem an onerous burden added to all the other cares of the office is the only choice.

Harry Truman went through the cycle with the characteristic spunk of the man from Missouri. He had come into office, on the death of Franklin Roosevelt, on a wave of hope and sympathy for one ill prepared to deal with the horrendous tangle of a world in ruin after the World War II. Here was a president humble enough to say that while he happened to have inherited the office, at least a hundred men were better fitted for it.

Even after the press turned hostile and he plummeted in the polls, it was rare he lost his composure. Once was when he threatened to punch columnist Drew Pearson in the nose - in response to a column that the President felt was a reflection on Mrs. Truman and his daughter, Margaret.

For the most part he endured. He sat through a Gridiron dinner at which the principal Democratic song was "Harry's Ragtag, Bob-Tailed Band." It was a mean song jeering at the Truman welfare measures with cracks about free false teeth and eye glasses. It reflected the view of the majority of newspaper publishers, including those who broke out with laughter and applause in the banqueting hall. Truman never attended another Gridiron dinner.

There are signs that certain of the loyal crusaders whom Carter brought into the White House are beginning to try to score off against their critics. That is a mistake. It can only inflame a kind of internecine war that serves no purpose other than further to confuse and divide the public.

Speaking of humility, the Georgia team could profit by a bit of it. Young and with little or no national experience, they were part of a national campaign that, as Hamilton Jordan frankly acknowledged, was feeble and inept. In September of election year, Carter's lead was put at 30 points over Gerald Ford, and while that was probably inaccurate - let's say it was actually 15 points - in November he won by a margin of less than 3 per cent.

Carter immediately moved the entire team into the White House. They had never known the heady wine of power at the very top. The deference that power draws is deceptive in that it can be taken as a tribute not to the office but to the man. Their blunders hardly need repeating.

Now with Carter steadily dropping in the polls, the talk in the White House is of "redefining" the president. From the media merchants who are part of the team, this is to be done by television. The president's image is to be that of a bold performer willing to take risks in spontaneity without benefit of the teleprompter.

Henry Fairlie had a brilliant piece in The Post showing the absurdity of trying to package the president on the tube as though he were the newest brand of sugar-coated cereal. The image will be clear, Fairlie wrote, if the man and his policy are clear.

Of all recent presidents, John F. Kennedy was foremost with what the Irish call the gift of gab. His press conferences were a delight as he sparred with his adversaries, usually having the best of it. Public relations, with television an important adjunct, were part of his equipment. Yet no amount of performance could cover up policy mistakes.

Woodrow Wilson was one president, as Fairlie noted, with a superb command of language and a notable speaking ability before the era of radio and television. But when, after the Treaty of Versailles, he sought to convert his countrymen to the League of Nations, he failed tragically.

No, Jimmy Carter, be yourself with no conscious personality laid on by the merchandisers. There is no substitute for what is in the man himself.