IN THE BAD OLD DAYS when newspaper reporters carried half-pints on the hip instead of tape recorders, we were often expected to be ambidextrous.

One of my early assignments on The Nashville Tennessean in the 1940s was to write a speech for one of the publisher's legislative candidates. I then wrote a news story about the speech, which impressed me as dynamic and innovative, and got a third crack at it in an editorial I composed on the brilliance of it all.

That was my introduction to both journalism and politics. On our newspaper they were one and the same. Our mission was to rout the scoundrels and rally to the righteous. Whatever it took -- fair means or foul -- we were prepared to invest.

Bill Kovach, The New York Times Washington bureau chief, was a colleague in those days. He now refers to our exuberant crusades as an era of "neo-Jeffersonian journalism," a relic of the 19th century when newspapers, by and large, were subsidized organs of political factions and parties. They read the First Amendment as a mandate and license for free, vigorous and often scurrilous debate. They took seriously the proposition that the press was the Fourth Branch of government. The notion that there ought to be some decent separation between the two enterprises -- politics and journalism -- had not been born, and if it had it would have been strangled quickly.

In this century there has been an erratic movement toward a new journalism based on concepts of professionalism, fairness, detachment and truth. The ideal newspaper, by those standards, seeks to serve a large public interest as opposed to partisan and ideological interests. The reporter renders nothing to Caesar.

For transgressing on that Puritan doctrine, the columnist George Will is now doing a little time on the cross. He served in a minor way as a coach and adviser to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 campaign.

I could not cast the first stone in this affair, given my checkered past. But it sets me to wondering how far the new journalism has come from its "neo-Jeffersonian" roots. What distinctions do we make today between journalists and politicians? Are we still the same animals?

The question is not necessarily lunatic when we look around at the political/journalistic community of Washington in the 1980s and its many passages through the revolving door.

Diane Sawyer studied journalism and journalists as a press agent for Richard Nixon and is now a luminary at CBS News. Her colleague, Bill Moyers, took his lessons in the White House at Lyndon Johnson's knee. Jody Powell, the columnist, graduated from the Carter White House.

The wounded Will worked for a politician on Capitol Hill as an apprenticeship to his punditry. William Safire of The New York Times was schooled as a Nixon speechwriter.

The Times has had other experience with this phenomenon. Its defense correspondent a few years ago, William Beecher, became a Pentagon spokesman under Jerry Ford; he is now employed by the Boston Globe. Leslie Gelb, the Times writer on national security affairs, served Jimmy Carter as an assistant secretary of state. When Ronald Reagan came to Washington, Gelb was replaced at the State Department by Richard Burt of The Times, and Burt was replaced at The Times by Gelb. Do we conclude that there is a Timesman for all seasons?

Hodding Carter, Pierre Salinger, John Chancellor, Carl Rowen, Jerry O'Leary, John Scali, Jerry Ter Horst, Clark Mollenhoff and Dean Fischer are other members of our fraternity who have, so to speak, taken the king's shilling as political appointees in various administrations and who have then returned to the fold.

This bed-hopping does not prove the hypothesis that journalists and politicians are interchangeable parts, pulled out of the same bin. But it underlines the obvious truth that between the mass of journalists and politicians there is a wondrous symbiosis.

As Mary McGrory has put it, "Scratch a scribe in this town and you find a campaign manager." Our professional lives are intimately entwined with political lives and, very often, our personal and social lives as well. What is the line between us that should not be crossed?

Walter Lippmann once referred to the "rules of hygiene in the relationship between a newspaper correspondent and high officials. . . . There always has to be a certain distance between high public officials and newspapermen. I wouldn't say a wall or a fence, but an air space. That's very necessary." Lippmann never observed these strictures. He helped presidents select cabinet members, edited John Kennedy's inaugural address and advised Lyndon Johnson on the conduct of the Vietnam war. Nonetheless, his words are pertinent to the ethics of George Will and to the ethics of us all.

How are we going to play it? Are we going to be actors or spectators or both? It was not uncommon a few years ago for Washington reporters to form alliances with congressmen and congressional committees in pursuit of some investigation or passage of some bill.

Charles Nicodemus of The Chicago Daily News, somewhat as I had done years earlier, launched a crusade with a home state congressman, Paul Findley. He wrote Findley's speeches, reported them as Findley's own and won one of journalism's highest awards -- a Sigma Delta Chi medal -- for his ingenious labor.

At least two columnists of the 1960s sold their wares to newspaper clients on the basis of their intimate friendships with presidents. Carl Rowen reveals in a recent magazine article that he took part years ago in the planning of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. He was then a reporter for The Minneapolis Tribune. He could argue, of course, that it was a noble cause. But that is not the point. The point is the proper role of the reporter.

If we do not keep our distance, if we get into the arena, are we then journalists or are we politicians? If we are not chaste in this sense, are we likely to be credible? If we are not credible, what is the point of what we do?

The Will episode, which, praise the gods, is not called "newsgate," is interesting and instructive. But it is merely a symptom of a much larger problem within the Washington political/journalistic community.

The opinion polls suggest very strongly that people in the news business are not particularly admired or trusted. The public thinks we are too often biased and unfair. So long as we keep spinning through the revolving door, so long as we make spoken and unspoken alliances with politicial actors, their suspicions will be well-founded.