"Next year, Ethel assures me, you will be more comfortable," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), nodding to his sister-in-law and speaking to a tightly packed crowd of 200 on the patio at Hickory Hill. "By that time you will be in the third year of the Reagan tax cuts."

His jab at the Reagan administration was one of very few last night--most of the evening was centered on the winners of the 15th annual Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards. The awards, founded the year after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, are given for outstanding reporting on social injustice, one of RFK's concerns.

"John and Robert Kennedy really liked journalists," said award committee chairman and Philadelphia Inquirer editor Ed Guthman. Guthman first met Kennedy when he was covering the Justice Department's investigation of organized crime. He later served as press secretary to RFK when he was attorney general. "They respected what we do . . . they counted us as friends, not as adversaries."

This year's grand prize and first prize for print media went to Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Donald Drake for his seven-part series on street people. Drake, who fractured his thumb in a taxi door on the way to the awards, good-naturedly accepted help from his editor, Charles Layton, in balancing his heavy prize, a bronze bust of Robert Kennedy.

"What are editors for?" he said, winning some laughs from the mostly news-types crowd.

Other winners of the $1,000 first-prize awards:

Television: KRON-TV in San Francisco for "The War Within," a documentary on the aftershock suffered by Vietnam veterans.

Radio: WRAL in Raleigh, N.C., for "Five Faces of Poverty," a series on poverty in North Carolina.

Photojournalism: Randy Eli Grothe of the Dallas Morning News for "The Long Roll to the Top," a photo essay on five paraplegics attempting to climb the highest mountain in Texas.

Cartoons: Don Wright of the Miami News for his social/political cartoons.

Before Drake received his award, he sat by the Hickory Hill pool nursing his thumb. Looking toward the Kennedy house, he said, "Who says American capitalism doesn't work? Do the communists have anything like this?"

After the ceremony at the McLean home, journalists mingled with Kennedy family and friends talking shop--news and politics--and enjoying the spacious green grounds and the balmy break in the rain that hinted of the season to come.

"What are your plans for the summer?" asked one guest greeting Ethel Kennedy.

"Just to go to Cape Cod and flop," she said.