Those who knew Walter Lippmann as a colleague described him as "detached" and even "Olympian." But now comes Ronald Steel in richly documented and widely praised biography that depicts Lippmann as a cultivator of very important people -- "the name that opened every door."

Whichever view is right, the difference says a good deal about journalism today and yesterday. It reflects a cultural shift that has worked powerfully to make the press and television a force for institutionalized distrust.

Lippmann, to be sure, knew presidents and prime ministers galore. He was regularly briefed by the White House and at the chancelleries of Europe. I remember in particular that Undesecretary of State George Ball, when I worked for him briefly under the fiction that he needed a speech writer used to talk to Lippmann several times a day.

But access was to influence, nor can I remember Lippmann swallowing a line. Ball, indeed, was especially congenial to Lippmann because they differed so much on Gen. De Gaulle that their conversations inevitably forced out alternatives.

The sense of alternatives, a feel for the available choice, for the open options, the shots on the board, was for Lippmann the beginning of a formal, almost euclidian, process of reasoning. What set him apart from other journalists, what causes descriptions like "detached" and Olympian to become cliches, is that he was not an inside dopester or a news junkie. He avoided the cop-out of claiming only to report what he saw. He also eschewed the utopian.

The essential Lippmann was intellectually responsible. He worked hard to make out what he really thought. He tried to examine the unforeseen bad consequences of pure intentions. He searched his mind for breaks and continuities, the recurrent pattern of affairs, the morphology of politics and diplomacy.

Today and Tomorrow, as he called his column, set the bewildering variety of daily events in the context for the long past and the big maps. Lippmann explained why things happened and, more important, why they didn't happen. Even when Lippmann was wrong, he was illuminating. His influence came not from rubbing shoulders with celebrities. It flowed from the independence of his thought, the penetration of his analysis.

The power of analysis of course, has limits. Intense assessment of the shots on the board misses the shots that are not on the board -- the truly revolutionary departures that bend of course of history.

Nor was Lippman, as the saying goes these days, man in touch with his feelings. He was deliberately not in touch. He believed a person determined his being by rational choice. He thought he could choose not to be a Jew. So to his discredit he disavowed his origins, ignored the Holocaust and endorsed discrimination of sorts.

But it was a case of ignoring the deep caverns of the psyche, not a case of being contaminated by the rich and powerful. The proof lies in Vietnam. Lippmann did not suddenly see the light in a blinding revelation that he had been conned. He stood against Vietnam from the beginning on the clear, rational ground that it lay for outside this country's vital interest. Dispassionate analysis, in other words, worked with a vengeance.

The fashion now is to make a "thing" of access. Media stars stake their claims by shows of intimacy with the makers of events. The more serious younger journalists take their distances and become specialists in the credibility gap. Watergate and Vietnam make it easy to disbelieve. But unrelenting doubt, systematic imputation of bad faith and evil motives breed a climate of universal distrust and absolute cynicism. In the end, those who disbelieve everything are themselves disbelieved.