When Secretary of State John Foster Dulles needed an economist to travel with an American delegation to observe elections in the Soviet Union in 1958, he chose the young editor of Fortune, Hedley Donovan.

And when the flamboyant Henry Luce decided to end his 40 year reign at Time magazine, he chose Donovan his handpicked editorial director and heir apparent, to succeed him.

Yesterday, it was President Carter who called on the 65-year-old Donovan, who retired from Time's top editorial spot in May. The president is following through on a commitment to broaden his circle of senior advisers, in an effort to blunt criticism from Capitol Hill and other quarters that the "George Mafia"exercises too much power for so limited a perspective.

As a senior White House adviser, accountable only to the president himself, Donavan may bring to the embattled administration the same independence of judgement and politics that marked his 15-year tenure as Time's editor-in-chief.

At Time, Donovan came after the fiercely partisan Luce, who often used the magazine as a vehicle for his own widely know conservative political views. Yet under Donovan's stewardship, just a few months after Luce retired in 1964, Time took a significant swing to moderation and endorsed President Johnson for president. It was the first time the magazine had endorsed a Democrat since it introduced an editorial page in 1942.

Donovan displayed his bent for political independence again in 1967, when Life magazine did an about-face on the Vietnam war, and, after a lengthy agonizing reappraisal, called for a pause of the U.S. bombing.

Also, after endorsing President Nixon's 1972 reelection bid, Time magazine later called for Nixon's resignation, an editorial decision ascribed largely to Donovan.

Donovan is going to the White House in the midst of a major restructing. But those who know Donovan and his tenure at Time say that if Carter is looking for a senior adviser who will blindly toe the administration line, he may be in for a surprise.

Donovan first met Carter in 1971, when Carter was the newly elected governor of Georgia and still a relative unknown outside the South. Time ran a cover portrait of Carter for a story about racial moderates in southern politics, and Donovan has been credited with giving Jimmy Carter his first national exposure.

While Donovan's specific duties are as yet undisclosed, he will be able to advise the president on foreign and domestic matters, particularly economic. He is reported to have taken 40 international trips during his 15 years as Time's editor-in-chief.

Donovan will also be the White House's "senior" adviser in a literal sense -- At 65, he will be the oldest member of the senior White House staff in an administration often criticized for its inexperience.