JUDY WALLACE NOTICED that Joe Kennedy kept touching her. Sitting on the dais in the banquet hall in coastal Maine where Kennedy was about to give a speech to New England power executives, the two talked of her children and his children, of his father, Robert F. Kennedy, and of her admiration for him. But she also noticed the touch, quick and gentle, to her arm, and the way he leaned near her as he talked, the way his blue eyes locked her gaze to his. At 38, Judy Wallace is skeptical of the politician's studied intimacy -- the touch, the leaning, the intent eyes. And sitting with 32-year-old Joseph P. Kennedy II -- the eldest Kennedy son, a man mentioned repeatedly as a possible political candidate -- she saw this happening before her. But she was, frankly, helpless. Joe Kennedy was so natural.

She didn't mention it, but they had met before -- on a Boston subway platform where Wallace and her children were accosted by a wild man screaming about bombs. Kennedy walked up. "Is this man frightening your children?" he had asked. He stood with them until the train came, never revealing his name.

So Judy Wallace had worried about meeting Joe Kennedy again, afraid her heroic image would fade. It Walt Harrington is an assistant editor of The Washington Post Magazine. didn't. He was relaxed and ingratiating, told her one of his 4-year-old twins had pneumonia and that he was anxious to get home. She said she had been proud to get RFK's autograph as a girl. Joe Kennedy became suddenly still, looked into her eyes, and said, "I really appreciate hearing that. It makes me feel very good. Thank you." She believed him.

As he left, Kennedy stood up, took one step away from the table, paused, turned, and took her hand: "Judy, thank you," he said. "There is no one I would rather have sat next to. Thank you." The woman was helpless.

HE IS THE Kennedy child always on stage. He was born while his mother, Ethel Kennedy, campaigned in John F. Kennedy's first Senate race in 1952. He entered the legend himself at 15 when he slowly walked in his father's funeral train, shaking hands and saying, "Hi, I'm Joe Kennedy. Thanks a lot for coming." At 24, he was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. In 1979, he founded Citizens Energy Corporation, today a $400 million-a-year nonprofit business that sells cheap heating oil to poor people. Now strangers ask Michael Kennedy, 26, if he is Joe's brother rather than if he is RFK's son. After recent reports of hard drug use by his younger brothers Robert Jr. and David, who died last spring, Joe Kennedy was dubbed the "good" Kennedy by Vanity Fair magazine -- and once again cast as the Kennedy of his generation most likely to carry the family name into politics.

Joe Kennedy is not so sure. He hasn't been for years. He is militant about his family's privacy, he despises bureaucrats and he believes government is slow, cumbersome and too often in the pocket of special interests. "I think there are a lot of people who are interested in the process of government and that's great . . . ," Kennedy said. "It isn't, I don't think, probably where I happen to be best fit."

He has said this repeatedly, but it seems no one is listening. He is, after all, the nephew of Ted Kennedy, who elevated not running for president to a new political art form before becoming a candidate for president in 1980. And as his uncle did, Joe Kennedy leaves the door ajar: "I'm also not saying that I wouldn't ever run . . . "

But if Joe Kennedy is a reluctant prince of politics, he still burns with his father's fire to make America a more just place. If anything, Joe Kennedy's vision is even grander: He wonders if being a representative or a senator would constrain him.

Kennedy's energy company is dogooderism dressed for the '80s. CEC is no volunteer organization. Salaries run as high as $70,000 a year and Kennedy pays himself $60,000 a year. One staffer holds an MBA degree, an- other is the former energy secretary of Massachusetts, another has built shopping malls. Kennedy's first coup was convincing skeptical New England fuel oil distributors that they could make, rather than lose, money distributing cheap heating oil to the poor. And that is Kennedy's success: He tied self-interest to the public interest in ways that seem, well, Republican.

It is hard to imagine anyone except Joe Kennedy creating Citizens Energy: It is so much a child of his unusual lifeline. He was an angry young man, resentful yet proud of being a Kennedy. He refused to trade on his name. As a teen-ager, he wouldn't tell girls he was a Kennedy when he first met them. He was a rebel, unable or unwilling to concentrate on school. He hated being told what to do. He often seemed plain stubborn. Always, he had a boiling intensity. In a family surrounded by supplicants, he developed an uncanny judgment of who's got the stuff and who's got the bluff.

But most of all, Joe Kennedy was an absolute son of intrusive modern politics -- his every childhood vacation and teen-age traffic ticket became news. He and his wife, Sheila, are determined that their children, Joseph III and Matthew, will enjoy "normal" childhoods.

Joe Kennedy's struggle has been to be himself and to be a Kennedy at the same time. Yet, he is inevitably a public commodity, an icon, his family's vision forever intertwined with the nation's. Judy Wallace feared meeting the real Joe Kennedy, but she needn't have worried. If ever there was a person for whom dining with strangers is as natural as dining at home, it is Joe Kennedy. His touch isn't studied. He was born with it.

THE SAMOSET RESORT'S banquet hall in Rockland, Maine, has 56 tables and after his speech it seemed that Joe Kennedy would make his way around each of them. He got there from Boston late because of heavy fog, which had now closed the Rockland airport. He missed the cocktail party, arriving just as the mist turned to rain -- tired, his curly chestnut hair frazzled, his white cotton shirt spectacularly wrinkled, his tie, as it always is, hanging an inch below his tightly buttoned collar.

"How many people are here?" Kennedy asked Steven Rothstein, general manager of CEC, as they strode across the parking lot at Kennedy's usual quick-step.

"Two hundred and eighty to 300."

"Do they care that I missed the cocktail party?"

"I don't think they care." "I think we should go to Portland afterward."

"That's two hours."

"I'm never going to get out of here." Kennedy's speech -- about how the poor are gouged by heating bills, how they don't insulate but go cold, about how weatherizing a house can cut oil consumption almost in half -- received only polite applause from the energy executives. No questions. Then Kennedy worked the tables -- and the place came alive.

"He's cute. He's popular. He's famous," said 14-year-old Michele Chese, waving Kennedy's autograph.

"She's his constituency," smiled her father.

"What do you think, three or four years and he'll be on the ballot?" asked her mother. "I think so. I'd wager on it."

He looks like a Kennedy, but no particular Kennedy. At six feet and 175 pounds, he is larger and stronger than his father, his hair more wiry, his manner more physical. His smile rivals that of President Kennedy's. He is said to resemble his uncle Ted when Ted was younger -- the broad face, muscular chest, powerful arms, square jaw. Whatever, there is no mistaking him: "Hi, Joe Kennedy," he tells people loudly. "Nice to see you." His slightly nasal voice lacks the high Boston accent, and his posture is perfect. He has resolved his indifference to fashion by wearing only blue suits. Still, the ends of his tie go southeast and southwest. His brows are heavy, his complexion rugged, his hands large, callused, heavy with knuckles.

Joe Kennedy looks sturdy, slightly worn, like no hot-house rich kid. What is unforgettably Kennedyesque, however, is the smile -- from 0 to 60 instantly. He circled each table -- patting, squeezing, kneading shoulders, brandishing the smile and the laugh. Men's hands were taken firmly, women's hands squeezed between fingers and thumb. The last hand finally shaken, Kennedy asked Rothstein: "So now what do we do?"

The question was rhetorical. Kennedy rejected spending the night, mapped the fastest highway route to Boston, stopped at McDonald's drive- through, mistakenly ordered a bacon-cheeseburger ("Do you have one?" he asked the box sheepishly), and hit the road. "You're going to drive, aren't you, Steve?" Kennedy asked. And drive they did. Through torrential rain on Maine's two-lane Rte. 1, Rothstein reached 75 miles an hour. He passed on hills. With horn beeping, he passed three cars at once. Twice, drivers pulled off to the side of the road. Joe Kennedy doesn't waste time. Never did.

ONE NIGHT EARLY in his uncle Ted's 1976 Senate campaign, Joe Kennedy was late for a campaign trip -- and the later he got, the angrier campaign field coordinator Bill Mohan got. "Here we go!" fumed Mohan to himself. "We're being saddled with a member of the family." At 23, Joe Kennedy was his uncle's campaign manager.

Finally, Kennedy arrived -- soaking wet from the pouring rain. On his way he had seen a derelict passed out face down in a puddle. He stopped, woke him, gave him some money, hailed a cab driver who called an ambulance on his radio, and then left. But Kennedy insisted he and Mohan again swing by the spot: They found the derelict still sitting in the rain -- two attendants inside an ambulance talking. Kennedy blew up: "Are you going to help this guy?" he screamed. He wouldn't leave until the man was on his way to the hospital.

Said a chastened Mohan, "That changed my impression of Joe Kennedy forever."

The campaign was Kennedy's first big job. He had dabbled in his uncle's '70 Senate campaign. He'd taught sailing to ghetto kids, worked briefly as a juvenile probation officer, and graduated from the University of Massachusetts after stints at MIT and the University of California at Berkeley. He was no prize student.

"School was always so difficult," recalled his older sister Kathleen Townsend. "It was just so difficult." What Kennedy lacked in good marks, however, he made up in charm and effort.

"Joe has always had a kind of sparkle and a pleasant swagger . . . ," said George Stevens, a Kennedy family friend and the co-chairman of the American Film Institute. "Not excessively cerebral, always on the move."

Sports were Kennedy's arena. He was a big, strong kid, a fair athlete, who pushed himself beyond natural ability. "That's what saved him," said his close friend Chuck McDermott. "His feeling that he was going to have to work for whatever he got is what made him succeed . . . The awareness that things don't come easy is just something within Joe."

But along with his bullish determination came a carelessness, small and large. He was fined $25 in 1972 for failing to pay a 30-cent toll on the Massachusetts Turnpike. In 1975, he was convicted of negligent driving after a Nantucket auto accident that left Pamela Kelley, a girlfriend of Joe's brother David, paralyzed from the waist down.

Kennedy was a friendly boy full of "charging energy," said John Cleveland, one of his roommates at the elite Milton Academy in Massachusetts. "He didn't sit down and think things through," Cleveland said. "He was very impulsive." Kennedy would blow up over little things, perhaps if Cleveland used his toothbrush by mistake. Kennedy couldn't concentrate on the books.

"Somebody was telling me what to do," Kennedy recalled of his troubles with school. "Nobody's telling me what to do here . . . In this country, from about 15 to 25 you're kind of stuck in limbo, which I consider purgatory . . . Credibility . . . only comes when you get a silly piece of paper from a university." Kennedy's pressures also were different from those of other children. "When we'd go off on a skiing trip," he said, "there'd be a camera crew along with us . . . whenever we did anything there was always photographers and reporters around."

He began to resent the privileges that came to him as a Kennedy. He was outraged when he discovered an MIT professor had raised his course grade to boost his morale, and McDermott said he knew to introduce Kennedy to strangers only as Joe. "I can get any girl to go out with me just because my name is Kennedy," Joe once told his grandfather's nurse, Rita Dallas. "But I don't like that. . . . I guess I'd better learn to get used to it. Once a Kennedy, always a Kennedy."

"He's a wonderful rebel," said a teacher who knew Kennedy well. "He had tremendous skepticism about everything surrounding his family. All those big talkers. He was a brilliant kid who couldn't stomach that world."

Kennedy's youthful rebelliousness became a part of his character sketch in The Kennedys: An American Drama by Peter Collier and David Horowitz. In a disputed section of the book, the authors contend that while Kennedy was a student at Berkeley, renting a room from historian Diane Clemens, he spun an elaborate fantasy plan to smuggle drugs into the country from South America. Kennedy denies the story, which in the book is attributed solely to Clemens. She also denies it. Horowitz said he has a tape-recorded interview of Clemens describing the alleged drug fantasy, but declined to play it for a reporter. Clemens, once a close friend of Horowitz, said she told him no such story.

Clemens recalled Kennedy as confused and searching in the months he stayed in her home. One day, he ran across a recording of JFK's speeches in her record collection. "He had it in his hands and he was staring at it," she said. "He was very quiet, pensive, obviously thinking." Clemens once asked Joe to chop celery for dinner. Shocked, he said he'd never chopped celery. Clemens demonstrated. His celery chopped, Joe asked her to inspect it to confirm that he'd cut it correctly.

Years later, as Mohan and Kennedy crisscrossed Massachusetts in 1976, the youthful qualities, now redirected, again came into focus: the charging energy, the ear for bluff, the graciousness, the determination. The two often attended three meetings an evening and a blizzard hit one night when they were in the western Massachusetts town of Pittsfield.

"Hey, Joe, let's forget this thing," Mohan said of a later meeting in North Adams, about 15 miles to the north. They phoned and found 40 people waiting. "That was it!" Mohan said. "We were going, hell or high water. We were slipping and sliding."

Mohan also discovered that, rich or not, Joe Kennedy counted pennies. At a fast-food place, Kennedy once ordered a soda and a hot dog. The bill came to about $3. "Wait a minute! Three dollars for a hot dog and Coke?" Kennedy asked angrily. "Don't you think that's a little high? That's a ripoff!"

After the predictable victory in '76, Joe Kennedy floundered about. He was under pressure to run for either Congress or state treasurer, said Mohan, who was involved in the considerations. Kennedy "looked at" the possibility of running against then representative Margaret Heckler, a suburban Boston Republican, but declined, Mohan said. Then came a sobering blast: When word leaked that Joe Kennedy was considering a run against Robert Crane, Democratic state treasurer and an old Kennedy family ally, the publicity was swift and negative. Kennedy was deeply hurt, Mohan said, by an old accusation: That he was looking for a free ride on the family name.

Kennedy worked briefly in Washington for the Community Services Administration, but couldn't stomach bureaucrats. Out of work and ready to marry Sheila Rauch, a Philadelphia Main Line woman three years his senior, Kennedy decided to go into business on his own -- the first Kennedy to do so since his grandfather and namesake had become a self-made tycoon in the '20s. Joe Kennedy planned to buy a boat, hire a captain and start a fishing business. But as a son from a family whose worth is estimated at $400 million, money wasn't the attraction. The idea seemed good for an old Joe Kennedy reason: "I'd be out to sea and nobody telling me what to do."

But then Kennedy stopped at the home of Richard Goodwin, a former adviser to his father and JFK. "He had come over to talk about what he was going to do," Goodwin recalled. "Did I have any ideas?" This was 1978, at the time of a home heating oil price rise that had left many poor people cold. "Why don't you set up a nonprofit oil company for the poor?" Goodwin asked.

To Goodwin's surprise, Kennedy did. For months, he and two friends buried themselves in Kennedy's basement, unraveling the oil business. The experts said Citizens Energy couldn't work. Kennedy decided it could. "There are scams in the oil business," he concluded. And with oil very much on his mind, 27-year-old Joe Kennedy stood up at the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Library, invoked the memory of his father, and told President Carter and Sen. Kennedy, then about to enter the primaries against the president, that the "giant oil companies" and "vested interests" were "squeezing" plain Americans dry.

"Other people worry about looking stupid or foolish or offensive," said Kennedy's wife, Sheila. "Joe doesn't."

The 1980 primary was a disaster for Ted Kennedy -- and a turning point for his nephew. "It was a sobering experience," said McDermott, who worked in the campaign. "For one, Senator Kennedy didn't win. It reaffirmed a perceived feeling that Joe had that there is work to be done: Nothing is going to be handed to this generation of Kennedys. They are going to have to prove themselves as their parents did."

THE CITIZENS ENERGY offices in the South Station area of Boston Harbor strike the tone of formality and iconoclasm that is Joe Kennedy's. The ceiling of exposed brick vaulting reminds that the place was once a warehouse. An unframed poster depicting the mass of poor people in America is tacked to a wall across from a Jamie Wyeth print of JFK on his sailboat, the Victura. Joe Kennedy sits on the long rip in the middle of his beige office couch.

He wears a $22 Casio watch and the usual blue suit. He exercises daily, riding his Ross trail bicycle in the woods around his renovated farmhouse near the Massachusetts' coast, or lifting weights, or water skiing, or jogging, though his doctor has said it is bad for his trick knee. He will swim in the ocean well into October. He has fought bulls in Spain, shot rapids in Utah and chased antelope in Africa. "A guy's guy," is how one friend described him.

Kennedy spends most of his free time with his sons and his wife, Sheila. "She has a great deal of influence over my life," Kennedy said. He laughed and recalled the rumors that they had moved to Marshfield because he was shopping for a congressional district. They'd just had the twins and needed to move from their small city home, he said. They'd looked at 20 houses, but couldn't settle on one. "It was hot and Sheila pointed out that we were moving!" Kennedy said, smiling. "So I said, 'Fine, wherever you want.' So that's where we ended up."

Kennedy commutes to work in his 23-foot, 260-horsepower Chris-Craft speedboat, and on a nice day may pick up a sandwich for lunch and head out for a 20-minute boat ride. He talks as he lives, in energetic bursts. He drops the "g" from most "ing" words. He often talks of "poor people" and "rich people," as if they were absolutely discernible groups. Kennedy is suspicious of grand philosophies, a man given to quick, enthusiastic insights. The volume and speed of his voice run up or down with his excitement.

"I had no idea whether we were going to be around the next day or the next hour," Kennedy said of CEC.

The story: As oil prices skyrocketed in 1979, Joe Kennedy bought $62 million worth of crude oil from Venezuela. He had it refined and sold off the byproducts except the heating il. The profits were used to slash the price of the heating oil by as much as 40 percent. CEC then sold the cheap oil to the state of Massachusetts, which paid for its distribution to the poor. CEC has run the oil program each year since. Without the name Kennedy, it could never have been done. But without Kennedy's determination and ingenuity the name might as well have been Jones.

The genius was that Joe Kennedy found a selfish reason for everyone to sell cheap fuel oil to the poor. "The Venezuelans have a big stake in the East Coast market . . . ," said John Buckley, then president of Northeast Petroleum, a large New England heating oil distributor and the first to work with CEC. "They were interested in ameliorating the oil price shock." Refiners also were working below capacity, Buckley said, so they too were happy to cut a deal with Kennedy. And in New England, where hundreds of mom and pop PAGE 15 companies distribute heating oil, industry executives feared publicity about poor people freezing to death would force government to take over their business.

Finally, the beautiful selfishness of it began to sink in. The distributors were paid a flat rate for delivering the fuel, less than they would have made normally, but they no longer had the costly bother of ordering the fuel, collecting the bills and chasing no-pays. "It turned out to be a pitcher of lemonade with great public relations for our industry . . . " said Charles H. Burkhardt, president of the New England Fuel Institute. "The government thanked us, the consumer groups thought we were very nice. But it was all advantageous to us." It was, said Rothstein, "a win-win situation."

The complexity of the deal still stuns Burkhardt, who first thought of Kennedy as a rich do-gooder meddling in his business. Of course, Ken- nedy had a few advantages: In Venezuela, for instance, the Kennedy name is revered because of JFK's Alliance for Progress. And at Northeast Petroleum, the chief executive then was John A. Kaneb, who had lived across the dormitory hall from Ted Kennedy at Harvard. "My friendship with his uncle and that the Kennedys are a potent force here entered into my thinking, frankly," said Kaneb. And, he said, it was a good cause.

But the traits of Joe Kennedy -- those that made him a decent athlete, a rebellious kid, an obsessed campaigner -- also helped. "He'll just bang his head against the wall until it gets done," said CEC counsel Joseph C. Bell, of Hogan & Hartson in Washington. Since his success with home heating oil, Kennedy has put together a string of "win-win situations."

When homeowners converted to natural gas in droves a few years ago, someone called Kennedy and offered to give CEC the heating oil left in his tank. Soon Citizens Energy and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation were paying distributors to collect free heating oil from thousands of New England homeowners, who then claimed tax deductions for the donation. Today, CEC weatherizes public buildings such as schools, hospitals and courthouses in return for the difference in the buildings' old and new heating bill for an agreed- upon number of years, which pays off CEC's investment. Another CEC arm does the same for low-income apartments. All of this is self-supporting -- no government or private funds.

This year, CEC found a legal quirk in the regulation-encrusted natural gas industry that allows CEC to ship low-priced gas bought from producers in the field over privately owned pipelines. Gas companies in six states and the District, including Washington Gas Light Co., plan to take part in the program for poor customers. relief from the burdens of no-pay customers. Once again, everyone wins.

That also is true for Joe Kennedy. His wife, his close friends Chuck McDermott and Andy Karsch, and others who know him well, said the success of CEC has given Kennedy a boost of confidence -- and helped put to rest the question of where Joe ended and the name Kennedy began. "The fact that he was a Kennedy helped get his letters answered, but it didn't bring the oil in," said Sheila. "The performance did."

Citizens Energy gave Joe Kennedy a way to be himself and a Kennedy at once: CEC stands on the unusual personality of Joe Kennedy, but also embraces and uses the magic of the Kennedy name. CEC extends the vision of RFK by helping people who can't help themselves, but Joe Kennedy also gets "a little charge" out of the wheeling and dealing. CEC allows Joe PAGE 17 Kennedy to tweak the nose of the mammoth oil industry, but also accords him an establishment status within it. CEC is a refuge from the constant expectations that Joe Kennedy will enter politics, but also leaves the political door ajar -- and even enhances his appeal.

Citizens Energy also has given Kennedy a vision that is seductively idealistic -- and ultimately political. CEC isn't really about energy, said Kennedy. It is about looking at social ills with a fresh eye: Holding up the cube and turning it until a new angle comes into view. The message of CEC: "Look, there are ways to tackle the problems and to win."

Kennedy's is a sweeping vision. "You could create a jobs program and employ hundreds of thousands of people all across this country . . . You weatherize every single building in this country! . . . You'd break OPEC because you'd conserve so much . . . But that would be living off the government dole, right? The problem with liberalism -- and I don't think there is a problem with liberalism -- it's just that we've got to say, 'Look, don't let yourself get saddled with just being a welfare advocate.' . . . What you are doing is getting people out of poverty, rather than maintaining them in poverty." He said a weatherization jobs program would, like CEC, literally pay for itself. It is a win-win situation. Call it a New Deal for the '80s.

And why stop at energy? he asked, getting excited, talking faster and faster. Keep turning the cube -- health care, housing, food, juvenile justice, law enforcement must all have such hidden opportunities. "I didn't know anything about the oil business," Kennedy said. "And we did it in oil."

That kind of talk does little to convince skeptical Massachusetts politicians that this Kennedy isn't thinking politics. "He couldn't have planned it better," said a Massachusetts politician. "He didn't play off the name, and that makes the name even better."

Kennedy acknowledges that he started CEC with a eye to a distant political future: "To say that the thought never crossed my mind would be a little ridiculous," he said. Indeed, Kennedy was approached repeatedly last year about running for Congress if Democratic Rep. Gerry Studds, censured for having had sex with a teen- age male congressional page, should retire. "pens,'y- ing. "He didn't dismiss it."

Yet, as CEC put Kennedy in an even more enviable political position, it also spurred his longstanding ambivalence about politics. "When I talked with him recently, he was questioning the inevitability" of entering politics, said a Kennedy family friend who has known Joe well for years. " without the up-front public stage?' the friend said Kennedy asked. "eneration than in my dad's.'

"Is Joe rethinking a lot of things that were on automatic pilot? The answer is yes."

Kennedy worries that his temperament wouldn't fit the ponderous pace of government -- and that his family would sacrifice too much privacy.

"I'm not going to say that the way I was brought up was wrong or bad or anything else and that I'd be hesitant to bring my children up that way," he said. "What I will say is that I think that Sheila and I feel very strongly that our children ought to . . . be treated as normal, regular children and not as special people, and that I am not the attorney general of the United States. I don't have a brother who's president of the United States, and I am not going to try to carry along on those children of ours something that took place 20 years ago. I mean, it's just ridiculous. So it's a different time. We're different individuals. And it's just different." YET, AS JOE said years ago, once a Kennedy, always a Kennedy. The short, thick man behind the counter has taken Kennedy's airplane ticket, called for up-to-the-minute weather conditions, talked with him for five minutes. No names were mentioned. But when Kennedy asked for a rental car at the other end of his flight, the man dialedthe phone and said firmly: "Mr. Kennedy and a friend need a car." A long-distance name-dropper, the man's voice captured an air of feigned casualness, as he joyfully tweaked whomever had answered the phone. A Kennedy -- like the weather or Burt Reynolds, baseball or "Casablanca" -- is a medium of public exchange. The man smiled, as if he and Kennedy were sharing a joke, and Kennedy smiled back.

"You know what she said?" the man asked, grinning at Kennedy as he hung up the phone. "She said, 'Which one?'

Quite naturally, the man and Joe Kennedy shared a laugh.