"I can imagine living here!" exclaimed Mrs. Robert Covington, wife of one of the award-winning reporters for The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. "You can, can you?" asked her husband, laughing, as they munched hors d'oeuvres on the patio overlooking the swimming pool and steaming back lawn at Hickory Hill, Ethel Kennedy's McLean, Va., estate.

About 100 journalists, judges and members of the Kennedy family gathered there last night for the 13th annual presentation of the Robert W. Kennedy Journalism Awards recognizing outstanding coverage of the problems of the disadvantaged.

Ethel Kennedy, looking cool in a red blazer over a light print dress, told the crowd, "It's a warm and happy feeling to have everyone here. It's always wonderful to be with people who believe in the things Bobby believed in."

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert and Ethel Kennedy's eldest daughter, said it was appropriate to remember her father by honoring people who "risked telling the truth about the difference between being poor and being rich . . . risked telling the truth about the persistent terror of racism . . . risked telling the truth about fundamental threats to the health and safety of working men and women. . .

"I think it's a beautiful tribute to my father for the powerful to see how the powerless live."

It rained all during the awards ceremony, but the sun peeked out again just in time for cocktails.

One guest told Coates Redmon, who organized the awards ceremony, how lucky that was. "What luck?" Redmon moaned. "It was sunny, so I scheduled it outside. Then it looked like rain, so I moved it inside. Now I think it may rain inside!"

" felt happiest when we ran the series," said Laura Stepps, the Charlotte Observer editor who coordinated "Brown Lung: A Case of Deadly Neglect," the series that won the grand prize.

"When the prizes keep coming, it's pretty heady stuff," marveled Stepps. At last count, the series had won six awards: the Pulitzer, the Polk, the Scripps Howard, the Roy Howard, the Sigma Delta Chi "Green Eyeshade" and the RFK award. "We've all been dividing up the awards ceremonies," joked Observer photographer Phillip Drake.

Valerie James of New Jersey's Bergen Record won a citation for her story about abuses at a southern New Jersey institution for the mentally retarded. James went undercover in the facility's infirmary for a month. Of the party, she said: "It's very exciting. My editor said everyone should meet a Kennedy once in their lifetime."

Some of the guests were seen surreptitiously slipping Hickory Hill matchbooks into their pockets and purses. "To prove they've really been here, probably," surmised Ann Dorough, of the Marquette, Wis., Tribune, who won first prize in the student competition for a special report on minority awareness.

Paul Duke of PBS, chairman of the awards ceremony, announced the winners, and Ethel Kennedy thanked each one personally, presenting each with a bronze bust of Robert Kennedy.The busts were cast from an original sculpture by Robert Berks, who sculpted the Kennedy Center's bust of John F. Kennedy.

"This award does more than just propel a journalist's career," Duke said. "It means we haven't forgotten what Robert F. Kennedy stood for. And most important, it means we still care."

Afterwards, people clustered around the award winners and gawked at the sculptures. "Are they heavy?" asked one guest. "They sure are -- it's one hell of a paperweight!" joked Charlotte Observer reporter Robert Drogin.

The first-prize winners were WPLG-TV in Miami for "The Billion-Dollar Ghetto," a series on Miami's black neighborhoods during last year's riots; CBS adio for "Exodus -- Freedom Flotilla," about the flight of Cuba refugees; Len Lehman of the Escondidio, Calif., Times Advocate for his photo essay on illegal aliens; and Mary Ellen Mark for her Life magazine photo essay on Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The first-prize winners received $1,000 each; the grand-prize winner, an addition $2,000.

Mike Masterson of the Hot Springs (Ark.) Sentinel Record, who has won a record four RFK awards, including a citation this year for "Children of Poverty in the Land of Opportunity," summed up the evening: "You only live for a short time. What's it all about if you can't help?"