THERE WAS a time at the onset of this administration when it appeared that it was going to be very hard to mention human rights and Ronald Reagan in the same breath. The Soviets and their clients were going to be hit with a propaganda club for their every violation, while countries friendly to the American way would be allowed to get away with murder, torture and the rest of it. Such, at any rate, was the caricature that flourished in the early months. It was unfair, but the administration did its part to strengthen it by mechanically embracing an otherwise useful theory distinguishing authoritarian from totalitarian states and seeming to say to the former that for anti-communists anything goes.

A year later, the Reagan administration has made some progress in working its way back into more respectable human rights company. It has not abandoned--nor should it--its belief in the special menace of communist totalitarian systems: they are not only capable of extreme repression but they are very difficult to change. You have only to look at the latest congressionally mandated State Department report on the international human rights scene, however, to see that the administration is getting the range on friendly authoritarian regimes, too.

This year's report, the first issued entirely on Ronald Reagan's time, is as fat, frank and factual as were Jimmy Carter's. For instance, the section on Pakistan, a security favorite of this administration, includes material as damning as that recently released by Amnesty International. The new report makes clear that terrorists as well as governments are violators and it exposes some common alibis for trampling on people's political and personal rights. The double standard of which skeptics had warned is not in evidence.

Aha, the skeptics say, that's only the half of it: Ronald Reagan can afford to be evenhanded in these once-a-year reports of the bureaucracy because, at the policy level, where it counts, he will overlook violations of friendly states. There is reason to be wary here; Pakistan is a case in point. But there is reason, too, to watch what really happens. Of the various techniques Jimmy Carter used in his policy, the more up-front, hit-'em-over-the-head methods sometimes seemed to produce more resentment and backlash than actual progress in rights. The Reagan administration favors the quieter ways of "traditional diplomacy." Its toughest case, El Salvador, the last administration couldn't crack, either.