Plunging in

After 31 years of cool and careful objectivity, I have committed my first partisan political act. I am a reporter; that is one of the reasons I held out so long. But after more than a decade of eyeing elections with a professionally neutral eye, I unhesitatingly chose to jump in with the rest of the largely partisan and opinionated human race. For a reporter, or a person, that is enlightening.

It is a form of enlightenment, however, that I had never particularly desired. I do like being a reporter. I write about, among other things, government in North Carolina. In addition to that, I'm temperamentally unlikely to wholly agree or disagree with anyone. So, in the interests of professional purity and personal ambivalence, I had never so much as signed a petition.

The reason for the change - and no less a reason would do - was that my brother Harry, a 28-year-old model of wisdom, charm, good looks, and political acumen, was making his first try for public office. Harry was running for a seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives, representing the county where we both grew up. He and I are great pals. And it is possible that I would have worn that silly plastic campaign hat in his behalf no matter how he stood on the issues.

This is probably not the reason most people get involved in campaigning. For that reason, however, I did make this rather startling move: I took a side. And I found it a different business altogether from simply watching with disinterested or indifferent eyes.

First, there is the matter of passion. Reporters, and others who don't stuff envelopes, have only preferences. Campaigning is very different. We waited on election night as the returns came in at the county election headquarters. Each time a call came in from a precinct, half a dozen kids rushed to write the numbers on the huge sheets tacked to the walls.

With every call in the first several hours, my heart beat as if I had been unexpectedly asked to stand and deliver a keynote address. I looked over at Franc, another brother, another campaigner, Harry's twin. Franc spent the evening turning colors, splotchy combinations of flushed and pale. Franc and I have cared about elections before, but not every phone call, every precinct and neighborhood.

One of the reasons that we worried so over each call was that we were each held accountable. Dumpy, a childhood friend whom we must now remember to call Robby, was keeping an eye on who had stood at which polling place. He was bent over a sheaf of papers at the front of the crowded room. When one of us ''won'' a precinct, he would yell congratulations. We took mine - I am grateful - by a small but much-appreciated margin. It was a feeling of responsibility that was somehow more tangible than the responsibility for speed and accuracy and a well-turned phrase.

I also learned the meaning of some of those phrases I have many times typed. ''Grass roots'' is one example. Several notable campaigners in North Carolina have claimed to wage ''grassroots'' campaigns; and many times have I published their claims.

What that means, I now discover, is, among other things, going from door to door in a neighborhood. It means stepping carefully around tricycles and the grass seed that has just been spread. It means persuading the suspicious that you are not there to sell or to steal. It is an intimate and surprising way to know a subdivision - the way children know a street, every bush and curb of it, while their parents drive in and out in cars. I have a tie now to the area known as College Park in Wilmington that I'll think of again every time I drive through that part of town.

Fortunately, however, I felt only the weight of College Park on my shoulders. It was one precinct among 34. We were a team - family, friends, and people who simply favored the candidate. Teamwork is perhaps familiar to many people. But for writers it is something of a novelty. We do not always see relations with editors in that way. And we rarely pitch in and write a story together. I liked working with all the other folks in silly hats; we were all trying as hard as we could to make something we cared about happen. I question now how I lived so long without having that experience. I am glad that I have found out now about people working together.

I had expected to be disillusioned by this plunge into active politics. I wasn't. I had thought I might find out more disquieting things about political tricks than I already, from newspapering, knew. I didn't. I learned nothing new about the ''evils'' of politics, the theory of politics, or the actual operation of a campaign.

What I learned instead is some of the reasons a lot of people love to campaign, some who would never agree to run. There are, of course, people who get jobs out of their efforts for candidates and people who expect favors. There are those who back the candidate who supports their causes. And there are the campaigners who become, more than anything else, simply excited and fascinated, absorbed and involved.

Now I have been one of those - and discovered the pleasure of taking a side. I temporarily abandoned the tense indifference of the professional observer. And personally, my role as sister aside, I understand how people can give their full support to a candidate with whom they are maybe only 89 percent - Harry and I differ on erosion-control policy - in agreement.

I am still, however, a reporter. And Harry is now a legislator. Fortunately, the political writing I do doesn't involve the delegation that he has joined. So I have returned to my own work with indifference unbesmirched.

And that is my preference. In spite of my satisfaction in the outcome at College Park, my own real responsibility will always lie in watching, describing , and trying to explain. It is a responsibility that I still value. But it is one I carry with more understanding now that I have also carried a campaign sign.

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