The American newspaper in an earlier age often exchanged its virtue for political spoils. Butin the corporate era in which we now live, newspapers have acquired characteristics of the public utility, monopoly status included. They preach social responsibility and cast off overt political entanglements. The polemical traditions of their editorial pages give way to civility and reason. As in the modern pulpit, the hell fires of olden times are not stoked.

We have seen this in The Post in recent weeks as the editorial board methodically intellectualized its way to the endorsement of candidates, Democrats and Republicans alike.

The board was described in 1988 by the editorial page editor, Meg Greenfield, as a collective tending to middle-age and having "the sensibility of 1950s liberals -- meaning that by today's standards we are relatively to the center-right on foreign policy. At least that is the perception of people to our left." On the right, it is often seen as a subsidiary of Pravda.

The standard socio-economic indicators define the board's members (and most of us here) as an upper-middle-class crowd. Most of them are products of the Ivy League. Their demographic diversity lies only in the fact that half of them are white males, 30 percent are female and 20 percent are black. These percentages perhaps imply the presence of whole battalions of political philosophers. The head count, in fact, is 10 souls, responsible for explicating the universe and all the matter therein.

Philosophically they are in harmony with the company's chairman, Katharine Graham, and its publisher, Donald Graham, to whom Miss Greenfield reports. Her mandate is "no surprises," and in the case of political endorsements, there are many consultations before things get sorted out.

This process in 1990 had an unofficial launch date in June, although the character and records of many candidates had been evaluated and editorial judgments probably made long before then. Still, during the weeks of summer a procession of current and would-be officeholders trouped into the paper for discussions and interviews. At the same time, editorial writers -- and on some occasions the publisher -- trekked out into the city and suburbs for political forums, debates and other fact-finding expeditions.

On Aug. 30 the first gun was fired: "Clean House -- Dixon for Mayor." Over the next week, the paper's blessing was bestowed, sometimes with little enthusiasm or explanation, on a variety of candidates, celebrities and ciphers alike. The great majority of the contests were ignored, presumably on the theory that the public was quite competent to decide who would best fill such positions as register of wills. Of the more than 500 candidates on local ballots, only 37, by my count, got an endorsement. A few were as thin as poorhouse gruel: "Frank Smith has not exactly compiled a distinguished record ... {But he} at least knows the job."

Two-thirds of The Post's choices won. But in most cases a cause-and-effect relationship can't be established. The renomination of such officeholders as Connie Morella and Tom McMillen would have come about, one suspects, with or without kind words from The Post. Its candidate for Montgomery County executive lost in a dull match skipped by a majority of the electorate.

In two races an endorsement mattered greatly. It lifted Sharon Pratt Dixon from relative obscurity and inspired her nomination for mayor. The Post's influence could be seen as well in the showing of Betty Ann Kane, a losing candidate for D.C. delegate. The winner, Eleanor Holmes Norton, had long been a favorite of the city's white liberal establishment, geographically and spiritually located in Ward 3. But she was spurned by The Post in the eleventh hour for tax-law violations and was rejected by Ward 3 a day later. The ward gave Mrs. Kane more than 73 percent of its vote on a day when her vote share in the rest of the city was a mere 25 percent.

Race is a potential explanation. Mrs. Kane, like Ward 3, is white. But that explanation won't wash. The same ward gave Mrs. Dixon, a black candidate, 60 percent of its votes, twice the percentage she harvested in the city's other wards. What did it? The Post and the "goo-goo" factor -- the good government issue -- that inspires middle-class voters the world over, Ward 3 included.