WHAT'S TO BE SAID about a book that presents itself as a learned treatise on contemporary American politics and then, in the mercifully brief span of 211 pages, manages to:

Deliver Richard Nixon to the White House in the year before his inauguration.

Define John Lindsay as a Republican.

Describe Winthrop Rockefeller as Nelson's uncle.

Declare James Earl Carter Jr. to be a liberal Democrat?

That it's not a very good book?


That it's a hopelessly tangled jumble-jungle of loose language and oatmeal concepts? You betchum.

That's it's something called Edward Kennedy: The Myth of Leadership?

Ah, but of course -- yet another Kennedy book with jackets blurbs bugling about how finally someone has had the courage to give us the real Teddy, someone with the grit and the pluck to strip away the famous facade, peel off the public-relations layers down to the sub-dermal realities.

If I were Edward Moore Kennedy, though I'd be damned if I wouldn't sue these two fellows -- Murray B. Levin and T. A. Repak, the authors, so to speak -- for giving anti-Kennedyism such a very bad name. After all, as everybody knows, one of the Kennedy's most precious assets (well, besides their most obviously precious asset) is their competitive edge, and if Levin and Repak represent the competition, the Kennedys are going to lose that edge.

Levin is professor of political science at Boston University and, therefore, ought to know better than to do what he's done in the company of Repak, who is described as an "investigative reporter" and once an employe of Jack Anderson. What they have together wrought is a crudely constructed compedium of cliches and common knowledge, sprinkled here and there with gratuitous little digs at the senator and his clan. Consider, for instance:

"The outcome of the election may turn on America's assessment of Kennedy's character."

"He cannot stand alone because, more than most men, he is perceived as a reflection of others."

"But the power of the presidency was not enough for this family. Once elected [John] Kennedy appointed his brother attorney general of the United States."

"He [Kennedy] willfully neglected his duties as majority whip."

"It is not certain that he [Kennedy] would be able to force 'liberal' programs on the Congress even if he were President."

"Some critics say the Kennedys are without principle."

Get the picture?

Look, I know it's tough to write about public figures, and I didn't really intend to be quite so snappy with these fellows, but honest to God, somebody has to stop them before they kill again.

How could they misuse the verb to decimate again and again?

How could they simply wipe the Gipper himself off the screen in writing that "none [of the 1980 Republican presidential candidates] is preceived as . . . a celebrity"?

How could they seriously offer Carter the suggestion that he model his 1980 campaign after those fabulously successful strategies on Herbert Hoover against FDR in 1932 and Barry Goldwater against LBJ in 1964?

And how about this grammar? "Chappaquiddick, and the doubt it casts on Kennedy and Camelot, is the issue for millions," these fellows posit. Wouldn't the verb be plural, professor? Where the hell is all the editors of Houghton Mifflin Company? Out at Martha's Vineyard casting doubt with Chappaquiddick, or perhaps just casting about for yet another book on Teddy -- one, say, like Ted and the Kennedy Legend: A Study in Character and Destiny.

Max Lerner says he wrote this one because, like the mountain to be climbed, "the challenge of the Kennedys is there." Good Lord, Mr. Lerner. Can you imagine how many books that sort of premise is going to spawn?

But Lerner, who is also a professor, can nevertheless write a nice English sentence anyway, and that makes his book a bit better than the Levin-Repak Inc. enterprise. Not much, but a little.

Its basic, thematic thrust is that there exists a well-defined cyclical behavior pattern in Senator Kennedy's life -- confusion, blunder, remorse, expiation and rebuilding -- that more or less explains the way he is. The pattern, according to Lerner, is rooted in the presence of so many authority-fugures in the senator's life -- his father and his three older brothers -- too distant and too dazzling for real identification when he was young, and then suddenly gone, taken in a rush of age, history, murder and war. This deprivation (it seems strange to use such a term with reference to a Kennedy) led to an emotional stunting, a pronounced immaturity in the senator's attitudes toward career, self, marriage, drinking, women, sex -- all given expression over and over in the behavior cycles: drift and unhappiness, irrational action, remorse and self-redemption. c

But it is Lerner's contention that all of that is probably past now -- that Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign signals an end to that behavioral pattern. His decision to run, says Lerner, "took courage -- the courage to risk failure. It was finally a sign that Ted had grown up and become adult."

Now, much of the psychiatric musings done here by Lerner is just a little too cute for my money. I mean, this guy doesn't leave one little thread hanging out. He wraps up every damned one of them. That's not for me. I crave a shrink who leaves a little mystery to the mystery. Lerner explains all, which really ain't all that much fun.

I suppose that's what's missing from both these volumes -- fun. It used to be fun to read folks who were attacking Kennedy or trying to explain him or exalting everything about him, but it isn't anymore. I don't know what's happened, but I can tell you it was no fun reading these books -- and I'm on vaction!

Except that Lerner did tell me that Teddy's mother, Rose, believed when he was a boy that he might someday become a priest. I never read that before, did you? That's sort of fun to know, I think.