The word is that Jimmy Carter's presidency isn't washing.

Everywhere you turn, it seems that message is being hammered home: The Wall Street Journal finds Carter's troubles "threaten to undercut his power to govern" and that "frustration grips Carterites finding events drifting beyond control." The New York Times tells us the time has come in the Carter administration "when the tiny facade of harmonious collaboration has begun to crack and the government is speaking with conflicting voices." The Washington Post reports a major White House shakeup is about to begin, and that team is "painfully thin" in talent.

Pollsters detect signs of Carter's vulnerability. Washington insiders speak of his weakened presidency and erosion of authority. Gossips sneer, enemies smile, opponents plot their presidency primary strategy and line up campaign operatives and advisers two years in advance.

No successes, severe testing yet to come, fateful decision about to be made, intractable if not insoluble problems all around, and all demanding attention - but you get the point.An imperiled presidency. All in all, not the brightest harbinger of spring for our 39th president.

But before all this wisdom gets set in concrete and erected as another Washington Monument, a little perspective, please.

Ten years ago today, March 12, 1968, Eugene J. McCarthy made political history. He didn't actually win the New Hampshire presidency primary that day, as legend incorrectly credits him but his strong showing against Lyndon B. Johnson did set in motion forces that were to change the country, and our lives.

The wisdom at the time, of course, was that McCarthy's was a foolish, vainglorious expedition. No one could successfully challenge a sitting president as L.B.J. And most particularly a challenge mounted by a nobody like Gene McCarthy. The political pros found his campaign amateurish, the press pronounced him hopeless. McCarthy was a loser.

Most historic anniversaies are hardly worth noting - the "ten years after . . ." and "20 years ago today" stories are routinely written and either properly ignored or shrugged off with a fugurative "so what?" - but that's not the case for those events triggered bythat small turnout of voters on the snows of New Hampshire a decade ago.

In retrospect, the bewildering - and frightening - succession of change, crisis, tragedy and upheavel that swept the United States in just a few short months came close to altering permanently our political process. The political parties, the presidency, the public - all were profoundly affected. And so were millions of us, privately and personally and deeply. I'm convinced that when the "War and Peace" of our contemporary politics and society is written, the central chapter will have to deal with that heartbreaking time.

Consider, and remember:

Three days after New Hampshire, Robert F. Kennedy privately decided to enter the presidential race against Johnson. In a memorable plane ride that day, fittingly the Ides od march, he left Washington at 8 in the morning on the Eastern shuttle virtually unnoticed and returned at dusk to an airport crowded with television crews, photographers and reporters. Word had begun to spread about his intentions. During the fight, we talked about what he was about to do, and why! His basic theme, one he kept returning to, was personal.

"I have to deal with myself," he said, "and that's a problem I have to balance that off. I have to decide whether I'm going to act like a hypocrite of stand up for what I believe."

He knew the Democrats were deeply divided in New Hampshire, knew McCarthy was, in the race to the end, knew that by directly challenging an incumbent president he might shatter the Democratic Party, knew that people were aware he had considered entering the primary and had rejected the idea. "It was a dilemma and a problem either way," he said. "Any way I did it was not only going to be accepted."

But the only issue that was important was who was going to be thr next president of the United States , and what policies he might follow in the years to come. His own brother, Ted, thought him "a little nutty" in running, he said smiling and then added:

"but you see, he's an entirely different kind of person. You've got to march to the music, and mine is measured to a different beat."

Within two weeks, Johnson suddenly and stunningly had taken himself out of presidential consideration. In one more week, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, and plumes of smoke and flames rose over America's cities. And less than three months after he had announced his candidacy, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in that hotel kitchen in Los Angeles.

Those cataclysmic events left a fragmented and leaderless Democratic Party, a nation more bitterly divided than at any time since the Civil War, and a weakened presidency that continued as the Nixon Watergate era followed the Johnson period of traumas at home and abroad. We are still paying the price for that upheaval.

These were the conditions that made it possible for unknown like Jummy Carter to become president - and that left him such a difficult legacy once in office.

That isn't to excuse any failures of the Carter presidency so far. But all the talk about the inepitude behavior of these outsiders now in the White House raises a certain cynicism in this corner.

Questions: If Lyndon Johnson was so fabled behind so miserable a mess? If Richard Nixon was so experienced and skilled in governance and politics in Washington for more than a generation straits? If Gerald Ford was so consummate a congressional hand and knowledgeable about the way Washington works, why wasn't he able to hold his seat of power?

Carter's presidency may, indeed, turn out to be disastrous. If so, we've all lost again. And perhaps we all have not asked the right questions of ourselves: What it is we really want in a president; what we're willing to work for: what, if anything, we're willing to give up. Maybe we really are ungovernable.

And yes, maybe something else. Let this president win a victory or two, say over the Panama Canal and resolving coal strike (no longer so farfetched a thought this week-end), and he instantly will be acclaimed as a wonder.

Washington, you see, is many things. Fickle is one of them.