SEN. Edward M. Kennedy's latest adventures, his forays into Latin America and the Soviet Union, have been given much press attention. What has largely escaped notice has been the way the Massachusetts senator has managed to shoot forward by stepping backward. By taking himself out of the 1988 presidential race, Mr. Kennedy has accomplished what he had hoped, and much more.
His disengagement from presidential aspirations, for now, has freed him from having his every word and action interpreted as part of a White House strategy. But with this liberation has come something else: He has become the most prominent member of the opposition.
Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill still holds that crown, but it is slipping off fast as he looks for the exit and others seek to succeed him.
Presidential aspirants like Gary Hart and Mario Cuomo are also getting a lot of headlines. But it's Kennedy who has had his own summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in which he somehow achieved the standing of a prime United States negotiator as the two talked of peace and arms control. And out of these conversations came the disclosure that Moscow would no longer insist on an end to development of the US Strategic Defense Initiative (``star wars'') before an agreement to reduce medium-range nuclear missiles could be hammered out.
Mr. Gorbachev then told Kennedy that without the prospect of signing such an agreement or a comprehensive nuclear test-ban accord, he had questions about meeting with President Reagan in June, or anytime soon.
Kennedy also evidently used this meeting to make a strong case for permitting a number of oppressed Russians to emigrate, and he apparently received an indication that the Soviets would let them go.
Then there was Kennedy's TV broadcast to the Russian people. No small potatoes, all this activity. Indeed, within high administration circles, there was something less than enthusiasm for Kennedy's involvement -- and success -- in high diplomacy.
Kennedy's warm reception in the Soviet Union does stem, in part, from his well-known support of a nuclear arms freeze. He's seen as a US leader who would be more likely than President Reagan to accept Gorbachev's recent arms control initiative.
But more than anything else, Kennedy was playing the role of a Kennedy to the hilt -- unencumbered by fears that his every move would be played down as nothing more than presidential-aspirant politics. And more important, the senator was being given the standing of a Kennedy, of one who as the brother of a former President expects special treatment from world leaders.
In national affairs, too, the senator will soon become much more visible than he has been for several years. But there will be an end to the twisting and turning that accompanied his recent efforts to look like something less than a Kennedy liberal -- moves his advisers had convinced him were necessary to win the presidency.
He was very much in the Kennedy tradition as he championed human rights in the Soviet Union and Latin America. And he will be very much in that tradition now as he pushes for help for blacks, ethnic groups, the poor, and otherwise disadvantaged people in this country.
No more will he attempt to sound like Reagan with speeches that focus on trimming government spending -- although he will not be so foolhardy as to push government outlays as the solution to social problems. But his emphasis will be on being Kennedy in the Kennedy way -- with compassion as the underscored theme.
So it is this ``liberated'' Kennedy that now comes forward. Where will he go? He is now committed to waiting for the right time. When will that be? Not 1988, he says. He clearly thinks that the economic climate is favorable for a Republican next time around. And he's young enough to wait.
But Kennedy has almost made a career of changing his mind on running. If he now takes over as the unofficial Democratic leader, he just might find himself in position as the logical one to lead the ticket in 1988. And from that spot -- and with persuasion from Democratic colleagues -- Kennedy just might get into the race.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.