PURSUIT of the presidency is not my life -- public service is.'' With these thoughtful words Sen. Edward Kennedy has taken himself out of the Democratic race for president in 1988 and opened the field to a new generation of contenders. One can only guess whether Senator Kennedy will think again about the White House in the 1990s, when he will still be young enough to run, or whether he has made a practical calculation that 1988 will be a difficult year for a Democratic ticket after a long period of economic gains.
But taking his statement at face value, one counts mostly gains for the political picture from his decision. It frees Mr. Kennedy to devote himself to his senatorial chores and to campaign in behalf of political values. It frees his party to look ahead to the nation's emerging issues and needs, instead of anchoring it to the past.
In a sense, Ted Kennedy represented a political tradition that was the emotional, ideological, and programmatic antagonist of the conservative movement of the 1960s. Politically speaking he was a contemporary of Ronald Reagan. A Kennedy -- Jack, Bobby, or Ted -- has helped define what conservatives were against. A 1980 race between Reagan and Ted Kennedy, ideologically speaking, would have been more clearly drawn than the Carter-Reagan race, though the outcome might have been little changed; similarly, 1984 might have been a more even match between George Bush and Walter Mondale, non-political-bloodline heirs of presidencies. Ted was being taunted by his ideological adversaries to run; his decision not to do so rids the campaign of this negative emotional luggage.
New Democratic names can now be put forward, freer of comparison with a political dynasty's battle-scarred past -- Mark White of Texas, Mario Cuomo of New York, Richard Gebhardt of Missouri, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Joseph Biden of Delaware. The Massachusetts senator's early, wise decision should help speed a needed generational change in Democratic politics.