SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va. — It was supposed to be a relaxed weekend in the country for Senate Democrats to contemplate the future of their party, but Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) broke the mood by forcefully letting it be known that he may seek the presidency in 1988.
Kennedy, one of 37 Senate Democrats who gathered at a resort here during the weekend, told reporters on Sunday that family considerations might no longer prohibit him from running for President in 1988, as they did in 1984.
"Family considerations will always be important, but my children are older," he said, adding that his desire to be President is "the least well-kept secret in public life."
Throughout the weekend, Kennedy, who tried unsuccessfully to wrest the 1980 Democratic nomination from President Jimmy Carter, had been dropping hints that he might be gearing up for another presidential bid. These hints included a well-timed speech on Friday that advised Democrats to become a more moderate party, an earlier interview with the Boston Globe that was timed to be released on Saturday and an emotional talk to his Senate colleagues on Saturday night in which he recalled an important moment in 1960 during his brother John F. Kennedy's successful campaign for the presidency.
Kennedy clearly captured the media limelight at the retreat. But Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) insisted that the question of Kennedy's presidential ambitions did not affect the senators' private discussions of their party's future.
Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who organized the retreat, said that senators were "very moved" by Kennedy's surprise remarks to them at dinner on Saturday night--the only session that was open to the press.
Fondness for State
In his remarks, Kennedy said that he had a special fondness for West Virginia because it was in this state that his brother came from behind to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960.
He reminded his colleagues that, 10 days before the West Virginia primary, the polls showed John Kennedy trailing by 20%, primarily because of prejudice against him as a Roman Catholic. During a meeting that day with his two brothers aboard the campaign plane in Wheeling, W. Va., he said, John Kennedy decided to speak out on the issue of religion.
The senator also noted that his brother went to Charleston, the state capital, to make his speech on religion. In that speech, John Kennedy recalled that their older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., a World War II pilot, was killed on a dangerous mission with a Protestant from West Virginia as his co-pilot.
Observing that the speech was credited with turning the tide in the 1960 race, Sen. Kennedy went on to say: "I feel very strongly about the issue of tolerance in our society. This state has demonstrated it." He then ended with a toast to West Virginia.
Presidential Bid Seen
After the toast, several senators commented privately that Kennedy seemed to be preparing for a presidential bid of his own. None wished to be quoted by name.
In his interview with the Boston Globe, Kennedy said that he was keeping his political committee alive for a possible bid. "I've always said I'd like to be President some day," he added.
His speech on Friday to a symposium on the presidency of his slain brother was a blueprint for changing the Democratic Party. In essence, he said that the Democrats must admit that some expensive government programs have not worked and should abandon their support for them.
On Sunday, Kennedy named two programs that he believes have fallen into that category--public housing and the creation of jobs through public service employment.
Intended as Advice
He said that his speech on Friday was intended only as advice to his party, not as a vehicle for launching a presidential bid. "That was the reason for the speech--that reason and that reason only," he said.
The speech also coincided with the theme of the Democratic retreat, which heard advice from a variety of experts on how the party could best compete with the Republicans in the 1986 congressional elections and the 1988 presidential race. Among the speakers were economist Lester Thurow, John Sculley, president of Apple Computer Inc., and former Defense Secretary Harold Brown.
The Democratic senators took no new positions during the weekend.