When I was sent out on the presidential campaign trail for the first time in 1960, I was introduced to the ritual of ''saving the blacks.'' It was not a civil rights slogan, but a mutual self-protection arrangement among reporters.
When you handed your story to the Western Union man (yes, child, there really were Western Union men in those days), you saved your ''blacks'' or carbon copies. If one of the brethren were too drunk to write a coherent story of his own, some senior reporter would come through the bus collecting ''blacks'' from the rest of us. He would borrow a paragraph from this story and another from that and quickly piece together a passable composite under the byline of the besotted journalist. Thus the paper whose correspondent was out of commission was ''protected'' from being scooped, and the errant soul would get no grief from the home office.
A similar cocoon of protectiveness was extended to the candidates, whose private foibles also went largely unreported. It was a cozy, comfortable arrangement all around, but it is gone now, and it is not likely to return.
Today, we have moved to the other extreme. Political reporters swoop down, reflexively, on any possibility of moral dereliction and ask presidential candidates at random whether they ever committed the ''sin of the week.'' Did you ever womanize? Did you ever plagiarize? Did you ever inhale an illegal substance?
The interrogation reflex has reached the point that whenever a particular moral transgression hits the news, as marijuana smoking did recently in the aborted Supreme Court nomination of Judge Douglas Ginsburg, politicians rush forward to confess their own record in that regard. They fear that if the information is not volunteered, but has to be wormed out of them, the press and public will judge them even more harshly.
Thus, the extraordinary spectacle last week of the grandfatherly, patrician, 68-year-old chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, affirming that years and years ago he had puffed on a marijuana joint and had not enjoyed the experience.
You have to wonder what this disclosure will add to the store of knowledge of Rhode Island voters or of the senators and State Department officials who deal with Pell every day. It's surprising and mildly titillating information, but that is a marginal justification for the breach of Pell's privacy.
For long years, we in the press accepted the general notion that the private lives of public officials were not our concern. Increasingly, we have erased that line, arguing that some private matters raise important questions about the individual's fitness for public responsibility. But we know we are on shaky ground.
Ever since the Gary Hart/Donna Rice story was published last spring as a result of The Miami Herald stakeout of Hart's Washington home, political reporters have been talking without much success about the guidelines we can use to judge when we have wandered off course.
I thought the Hart story was justified, because it involved the current actions of a presidential candidate who had repeatedly asserted to reporters, campaign workers and supporters that he would not embarrass them by repeating the kind of actions that had caused them concern in the past.
The issues of veracity, self-discipline and responsibility were all present in the Hart affair -- and deserved to be discussed, even though they took reporters into areas of life normally allowed to remain private. Similarly, with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. the questions of exaggerated credentials and unattributed borrowings from others' speech material arose from the current presidential campaign. And they raised doubts, which caused Biden to retire from the race.
But reporters have to be aware that the cumulative effect of all these stories is to deepen public cynicism about both politics and the press. Voters increasingly believe that reporters will not rest until we have pursued the real or imagined scandal in the private life of everyone holding or seeking high office.
Political journalism is not a way of satisfying the random curiosity or the voyeuristic inclinations of reporters or readers. It has to advance the dialogue on public issues or aid voters in fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens, including their judgments of the capacities and character of would-be presidents.
By that standard, the recent round of stories on past pot smoking by presidential candidates was miles off base. It's time to slow down and take another look at what we're doing, before more damage is done to the reputations of candidates and the credibility of the press.