During my first day at the Virginia General Assembly the doorkeeper of the Senate caught me stepping down an aisle where only senators were meant to walk. The doorkeeper, known chiefly for his resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock and his ability to snap his fingers louder than several of the older senators could talk, quickly called the error to my, and everyone else's, attention.

Virginia lawmakers take seriously all matters of etiquette. They like to think of themselves as unique, the longest-running and most decorous legislature in the Western Hemisphere. They compare themselves ceaselessly to the Maryland General Assembly, which they imagine as a mare's-nest of race-track corruption, ethnic warfare, union militancy and unspeakable informality. COMMENTARY

They prefer to trace every political tradition to its roots in Jeffersonian democracy. While Maryland politicians have raised wheeling and dealing to an art form, making its appearance almost as important as the deals themselves, Virginians have done just the reverse, sanctifying the appearance of tradition and hiding behind polite minuets even when they cut the modern-day deals that make any legislature run.

"Are we merely the keepers of the status quo, or the architects of a government worthy of residing in the house that Jefferson built?" Gov. Charles S. Robb asked the General Assembly in his "State of the Commonwealth" address as the session began.

Many legislators must have wondered why Robb phrased it as an either-or question.

Their philosophy seemed best represented by a longtime delegate from coal country, a huge man with a ruddy face and flowing gray mustache, who rarely sponsored bills and voted "no" whenever possible.

"The Commonwealth has gotten along fine for two hundred years without this one," he would say of a piece of legislation, as he leaned forward heavily to push his voting lever to the red "no" light.

In their formal sessions, the legislators did seem almost Jeffersonian at times to a reporter accustomed to the more prosaic--and more open--world of Fairfax County government.

Deferentially they would ask the Speaker (listed on the voting board, not by name, but simply as "Mr. Speaker") whether "the gentlewoman from Arlington County" might be willing to "yield for a friendly question." Stoically they would swelter under the television lights, lost in the ever-present cloud of tobacco smoke, until the committee chairman signaled his permission for them to doff their jackets.

Reverentially each morning they would bow their heads as a guest minister praised the Lord--or "Master Delegate," as one said--for providing the Commonwealth with such wise and selfless leaders.

"It has not been an easy task for them, Father," the Rev. Charles B. King intoned near the end of this year's 47-day session. "The days have been long and the demands unending. But You have made them responsible for the sake of justice and love."

Few of the legislators, certainly, would disagree. Most Virginians were probably less affected by what the legislators did in 47 days than by what a county board might do in one meeting, but the legislators faced their task with a more theatrical sense of destiny, whether the issue was forcing utility companies to post an employe above-ground at all underground repair sites ("The man in the manhole is crying out for this") or the justice of granting game wardens special disability benefits ("If he doubts it, I suggest the senator from Alexandria try chasing through the woods after poachers for a day").

To an undiscerning rookie legislative reporter, the after-hours traditions of the General Assembly sometimes seemed less Jeffersonian.

Unwinding after a day of legislating justice and love, the state leaders would flock to the John Marshall or Hyatt Regency hotels to jockey for a position around the shrimp bowl at parties hosted by the vending machine lobby or the Virginia Oil and Gas Association.

They would dress for the Virginia Railway Association dinner at the Commonwealth Club, where blacks are not allowed as members and women do not enter unescorted. They would congregate at the Capri restaurant, where their gentlemanly reserve would give way to a boozy, locker-room fraternity as they moved from table to table, trading votes for an upcoming judgeship election fight, cuffing each other's chins, punching each other's shoulders, draping arms across each other's backs in a conspiratorial fashion.

Or they would kick off their shoes in the hospitality suite of the Washington Gas Light Co., another Richmond tradition, on the 12th floor of the Holiday Inn.

Legislators, lobbyists and hangers-on there would gossip about life away from spouses, from time to time passing their empty cups to the genial WGL lobbyists to fill with another Irish coffee. Like children at summer camp, they would complain about the dullness of the session and reminisce about the more exciting fights and affairs of past years--when The Washington Post, the veterans would say in my direction, used to send real reporters, like Carl Bernstein or Helen Dewar.

But it was at legislative subcommittee meetings, not in the measured floor debates or raucous evening parties, that the true Virginia tradition, the reverence for property rights and business as usual, seemed most evident. These sessions, sometimes announced to the public and sometimes not, took place in remote corners of the plush General Assembly building, and often they were finished by the time any reporters managed to track them down.

The lobbyists, on the other hand, always knew where to go, and they would sit at the conference table, sometimes a dozen or more, alongside the one or two legislators who showed up. Together, working as colleagues, the legislators and lobbyists would thrash out the complex issues of truck-weight limits or real-estate subdivision law, the real business of the General Assembly that might mean millions of dollars for Virginia industries, but was too technical for a full committee of gentlemen and gentlewomen to haggle over.

At times then, Jeffersonian civility seemed little more than a way to maintain dignity while caving in to the trucking lobby. It was not difficult to remain civil, after all, in a right-to-work state where the other side--blacks, or workers, or consumers--was barely represented, and where unions made so few demands that a delegate could be in the pocket of the coal operators and the United Mine Workers at the same time.

For the most part, though, tradition meant endless devotion to the form and ritual of legislation, to gentlemanly debates on manhole covers or the regulation of fishing with bait in certain counties during nighttime hours for suckers, carp and red horse. While the ritual played out to the fascination of most of the 140 legislators, a handful of power brokers, having achieved dominance through some combination of intelligence, cunning and old age, shaped the budget and decided the most important issues.

One Sunday night, in one of the more bizarre scenes of the session, these few old men reported to the full Senate Finance Committee, barking out like third base coaches as a clerk read each proposed budget amendment. When one of the chieftains barked, "One," it meant the amendment was passed, and the other senators, sitting silently around the long conference table, dutifully noted the fact on their copies of the budget. A "Three" meant the measure was dead, no questions asked. A "two" would have meant the inner circle was undecided and the full committee could vote; there were no "twos" that night.

It was somehow reassuring after watching the legislators for six weeks to discover that even in Jefferson's time the Virginia General Assembly was not all that Jeffersonian. When the sage himself retired from Washington and returned to Virginia, according to historian Dumas Malone, he began lobbying the legislature to support free education for all children and to establish a central university. His proposals, while greeted with respect, were often dismissed, lost in budgetary and sectional squabbling.

The General Assembly, Jefferson concluded, was "a good piece of a century" behind the times. "We have to contend with so many biases, personal, local, fanatical, financial," he wrote to John Adams in 1819, "that we cannot foresee in what their combinations will result."

Jefferson's discouraged ally in the Virginia Senate, Joseph W. Cabell, agreed. "The liberal and enlightened views of great statesmen," he wrote to his friend at Monticello from Richmond that same year, "pass over our heads unheeded like the spheres above."