GENE McCARTHY was looking back on Bobby Kennedy, and the year Kennedy waited for him to test the political waters before plunging in. His white shock of hair had turned even whiter. His voice, always surprisingly quiet for a politician, was quieter still. The reporters around the breakfast table strained to hear his wisdom and quips.
The question came early: Had he talked to Mr. Kennedy before he decided to confront Lyndon Johnson on the Vietnam issue in the 1968 presidential primaries?
``Yes,'' said Mr. McCarthy. ``And he said that he wasn't going to run. He said he had to think of his own future. I didn't say, `I want you to run.' I just asked, `are you going to run?' I never said that I wouldn't have run, if he had.''
McCarthy said Kennedy's position on the war - his anti-war position - ``was not as clear as people seemed to assume that it was. It was really more anti-Johnson.''
A newsman then asked, ``Did you think it was unfair that Bobby jumped into the race after you had gotten off to such a spectacular start?''
McCarthy replied, ``I don't know that I would have called it unfair. I would have felt that if I had said to him what he said to me that I had committed myself not to run.''
He paused and then added: ``But what was it that Edmund Burke said: that in every political situation there are a number of factors. Therefore the passage of time changes the equation.''
``So,'' the reporter asked, ``you seem to be rather philosophical about it now?''
``Well,'' McCarthy said, smiled, and then shrugged his shoulders.
Actually, McCarthy is not a fading politician who spends his time looking back on his glory days - and his disappointments. Instead, he is once again a presidential candidate, this time representing a party none among the assembled media had heard of: The Consumer Party.
``What is the Consumer Party?'' a national columnist asked.
``The Consumer Party,'' McCarthy began, and then stopped before going on. ``Well,'' he said, ``I don't know much about it myself.'' Everyone, including McCarthy, laughed.
``But,'' he went on, ``I don't know much about the Democratic Party either right now. Or the Republican Party. It's all sort of a fog.''
The old McCarthy was still with us of whom it once was said: ``he likes his politics on wry.''
Here a reporter broke in to say: ``I can never tell how dead serious you are. On this running for president: Are you putting us on? Is this tongue-in-cheek?''
``No,'' he replied. He expected to be on the ballot in the fall in 30 to 35 states. Actually, he said, he was yet to be nominated. But that, it seemed, would be coming soon.
He said that he saw little difference between the two parties and two presidential candidates. Yet his party would be ``well defined.''
Above all, McCarthy seemed to be saying that he would give the voters an opportunity to show their unhappiness with candidates and parties that were not really addressing the major issues: especially the economy and defense.
Also, he said, he sees his candidacy as one that will challenge the restrictive two-party system. It will open the door to a system in which other parties could contend for the presidency on equal terms.
He summed up his motivation for entering the race in this way: ``In an election like this - like in 1976 when you had Ford and Carter and it was a wash as to who was elected - there ought to be a challenge to the system.''
He then said he ``would abolish the vice-presidency and the federal election law.''
``Why get rid of the vice-presidency?'' someone asked.
``It's a disruptive thing,'' he replied. ``It distracts people from the real issues and the judgment and the qualities of the presidential candidate. You put two unbalanced people on the ticket and call it a balanced ticket.''
McCarthy had started out seriously in his answer. But, obviously, at the end he could not resist putting his own twist on it. Again the reporters laughed.
He'd been getting a lot of laughs during this breakfast session. Some reporters commented afterward that McCarthy was still tops among Washington politicians when it came to humor - the wittiest in a strong field that includes Alan Simpson, Robert Strauss, Morris Udall, and Robert Dole.
But for the most part, McCarthy was dead serious about what he was doing. He made his motivation for running quite clear: ``I would like it if a third party in this election where there is no compelling issue could demonstrate it is a force for good.''
As the breakfast neared its end, the discussion returned to that memorable 1968 presidential campaign where President Johnson dropped out of contention the night before the Wisconsin primary. His vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, then jumped into the race for the nomination - and eventually won it. The conversation continued on like this:
Q. ``Looking back. On Kennedy, would he have been nominated if he had lived?''
A. ``I don't think he would have been nominated. But I wouldn't have been nominated either.''
Q. ``Humphrey would have won it under any circumstances?''
A. ``Well yes. Or maybe Lyndon would not have dropped out if Bobby hadn't gotten in.''
Here a reporter spoke of ``all that animosity of the Kennedy people toward you'' and asked, ``could you explain that?''
``What really happened,'' McCarthy started out and then reframed his response. ``What was big with Kennedy from the viewpoint of his supporters was his courage. What we were saying was that he had made his judgment that it was all right to run when he didn't have to take any chances.''
There it was - the crux of the disagreement between McCarthy and Kennedy that has echoed through the years: Kennedy's followers considered him courageous; McCarthy's supporters saw Kennedy as opportunistic.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.