Kennedy's undeclared candidacy

History seemed to be repeating itself.

In the winter of 1968, Sen. Robert Kennedy met with a group of reporters over breakfast. He lashed out at President Johnson. He spoke bitterly about the Vietnam war. He said at one point, ''There's a feeling of unhappiness in the country'' and added, ''If someone just touched the heart of that.''

The reporters were getting what they had come for. The big question in Washington that day was whether Kennedy was going to jump into the presidential race. And here he was sounding as though he might be on the verge of challenging Johnson. But then when pressed by several newsmen he said the race wasn't ''conceivable.''

Then, somewhere near the end of the breakfast, Kennedy's press secretary, Frank Mankiewicz, interrupted by bringing in a wire story reporting the beginning of the Tet offensive.

The news obviously shocked Kennedy. ''You could just see the jolting effect it had on him,'' Robert Donovan, then the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief, commented recently. ''It just seemed to obsess him. There is absolutely no question in my mind that pushed Bobby into running. It's something I will never forget.''

By the end of the breakfast Kennedy was, indeed, sending out the clear signal. He was in the race.

And now Sen. Edward Kennedy, meeting with the same breakfast group, gave those in attendance the impression that they were witnessing the emergence of a presidential candidate.

Kennedy remonstrated. He said he was only looking ahead to this fall's Senate race -- and not beyond. But his denials were spliced with joshing. He was obviously encouraging speculation about his aspirations.

In a matter of just two days the senator had suddenly been given an immense amount of what is called media exposure -- on television, in magazines, in newspapers. True, Kennedy's espousal of a nuclear freeze was of particular interest. That accounted for some of the spotlight that fell on the Massachusetts senator.

But there was something more. Kennedy was quite suddenly making himself available to the news media. The reading from veteran presidential watchers was this: Kennedy had found his issue -- the nuclear freeze -- and he was using it as the centerpiece for launching his undeclared candidacy.

Within a few days after leaving the breakfast years ago, Robert Kennedy had his hat in the ring and was already deeply involved in his passionate crusade to end the war. The war dissenters, first won over by Eugene McCarthy, soon were flocking to Kennedy's side. And he was poised to make a formidable bid for the presidential nomination at the national convention when tragedy struck him down.

Ted Kennedy may turn the freeze issue into a crusade; but he isn't there yet. Furthermore, although he has become a stout advocate of the United States forgetting about any nuclear buildup and immediately seeking to negotiate a freeze with the Soviets, he doesn't quite rise to Robert's level of emotional appeal.

Perhaps this will come. But one senses that Edward Kennedy is much more the calculated politician and less the idealist than his brother. He's a cool, persuasive advocate, much more like his brother John than Robert.

So some observers here question whether Ted would become the natural leader of any great wave of antinuclear sentiment, if indeed the present movement reaches such proportions.

Kennedy says that ''survival and the economy are twin issues.'' He concedes that by freezing the nuclear buildup the US would, to protect its interests, have to build up an even larger conventional force than is now projected. But he argues that in the trade-off the US would come out billions of dollars ahead and with savings that would help reduce the massive deficit.

Critics of Kennedy's proposal quickly zero in on the problem of verification. ''How are you going to make sure the Soviets aren't cheating on a freeze?'' they ask.

Kennedy answers that the Reagan administration seems to believe it can have sufficient verification for its own freeze plan, which calls for a nuclear buildup before negotiations for a freeze would begin. Further, the senator says he feels that the Soviets would agree to on-site inspection.

Senator Kennedy obviously hasn't satisfied his critics on this point. But for at least a while he has found a subject that is highly controversial and central to the concerns of everyone. It has been enough to mount his undeclared candidacy -- and it could become the burning, compelling issue basic to a 1984 Kennedy presidential campaign.

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